It is no secret that President Trump and down-ballot Republicans have a healthcare problem as they prepare to face voters in less than four months. The country remains gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many voters blame the administration and its allies in Congress for not coming up with a magic solution. This view seems to be shared by donors, many of whom have signaled that they view health care as the party’s most serious vulnerability.
While there still is time to right the ship before the November elections, Republicans in Washington need to seriously analyze what has gone wrong and take corrective action before it is too late. If they look beneath the headlines, they will find that much of the health care dysfunction and obstruction comes not from their adversaries on Capitol Hill or from blue state governors, but from inside the federal government; specifically, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
CMS has been central to many of the problems that have plagued the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite knowing early on, for example, that over 140 nursing homes had at least one resident who tested positive for the virus, CMS put all their residents at risk by refusing to release that vital information.
This seeming lack of concern for seniors’ well-being angered everyone from the residents’ families to the emergency personnel who could have used the data to save lives, and it came at the very time Trump was starting to lose what had been a major advantage with senior voters.
At the center of this botched response has been CMS Administrator Seema Verma. A former health care consultant, Verma has struggled throughout the pandemic to provide Americans with clear information and direction. Her shortcomings were on full display in the early days of the pandemic when she refused media requests to answer questions about the government’s supply of ventilators, hospital beds and ICU units for infected patients. Her media blunders damaged the Trump administration right when Americans were turning to Washington for a sense of security and leadership.
Making mistakes during an unprecedented public health crisis is one thing, but deliberately sabotaging the administration’s free-market healthcare agenda – as Verma has done — is quite another.
Notwithstanding that the agency she heads answers to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Verma reportedly sabotaged an administration drug pricing reform plan to be implemented by Azar, because she was unwilling to reform the dysfunctional insurance rebate system. She reportedly brazenly threatened Azar that she would “make sure he’d never work in this town again” if he pursued the pricing reform issue. When Azar refused to cave, Verma helped to deep-six his pro-consumer effort during a key meeting last year.
Verma’s obstruction then rolled over into the broader Obamacare reform effort, where she broke from the White House policy team, and freelanced her own $1 trillion plan that many senior administration officials worried would drive people away from the cheaper health insurance options two years in the making. Her continued shenanigans have helped ensure that the administration still does not have any significant health care victories to tout this November.
While Verma’s policy impediments have hurt the administration politically, the accusations of crony capitalism that she has created for the White House may be even more damaging. Last November, for example, she tried to have taxpayers reimburse her for nearly $50,000 worth of jewelry, clothing, and other personal items that she said were stolen during a work trip. As if that were not enough, she also quietly directed millions of dollars in agency funds to communication consultants designed in large measure to boost her image, despite an already sizable CMS communications budget.
Notwithstanding the red flags raised about her spending habits, the fact that she has been anything but a team player regarding the president’s drug pricing reform effort, and considering the early and continuing missteps in handling the COVID-19 pandemic by her agency, Verma continues in her post. The longer she remains as head of the federal agency that administers both Medicare and Medicaid, the longer she remains an albatross around the neck of President Trump and the GOP heading into November.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.