“All of the contracts that we have at CMS are based on promoting the work of CMS,” Verma testified to Congress last month, in response to questioning from Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.)
But the emails obtained by POLITICO suggest that the contractors discussed with CMS efforts to boost Verma’s own public visibility as its administrator. The draft publicity plan submitted to CMS officials emphasized targeting “key women’s, leadership and general-interest magazines for potential interview/profiles” of Verma.
The plan noted that Stevens had already successfully arranged for several profiles of Verma and pitched her to multiple media outlets, including AARP’s magazine and POLITICO’s “Women Rule” podcast. The plan also laid out in-progress efforts, like a pending article for Woman’s Day magazine and efforts to have Verma profiled as one of CNN’s “Badass Women of Washington.”
Those “series of targeted media and externally facing opportunities” aimed to “highlight and promote [Verma’s] leadership and accomplishments,” according to a March 13 email that Stevens sent Verma and Brookes. POLITICO obtained the correspondence from a House staffer and confirmed its authenticity with multiple officials.
In a statement, a CMS spokesperson downplayed the proposal’s significance, telling POLITICO that the agency “does not consider or move forward with every idea we receive from contractors” and that any opportunities it pursued were reviewed and vetted by ethics lawyers.
“CMS pursued only a few of the suggestions in the proposal that were aligned with our priorities and promoted the work of the Agency and our record shows just that,” the spokesperson said.
The CMS spokesperson declined to make Verma or Brookes available for an interview.
Kennedy, who pressed Verma over CMS’ contracting practices during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last month, told POLITICO he is now consulting with the panel on how to proceed.
“I have a hard time understanding the logic that this contract was necessary for the execution of the policy positions of this administration,” he said. “There have been important questions raised by the documents.”
Stevens, an alumna of both the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, was one of dozens of individuals brought in to work for CMS through the public relations firm Porter Novelli.
Porter Novelli billed the agency roughly $280 per hour for Stevens’ services as part of a larger one-year, $2.25 million “strategic communications” contract. The Health and Human Services Department halted the contract after POLITICO in March reported on Verma’s previously undisclosed use of communications consultants, prompting widespread criticism.
CMS had initially agreed to pay Porter Novelli up to $204,817.80 for Stevens’ work over the full year, according to contract details obtained by POLITICO — one of at least four Porter Novelli contractors or subcontractors cleared to bill at that level. However, Stevens in her March 13 email told Verma and Brookes that she planned to terminate her contract at the end of the month. She ultimately severed ties with CMS on March 29 — the day that POLITICO first reported on the agency’s use of contractors.
A spokesperson for Stevens said that she acted solely as a subcontractor for Porter Novelli, and that “any work she has undertaken for Porter Novelli has been authorized and entirely proper.”
“Porter Novelli had a contract with CMS,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Any questions about the Porter Novelli CMS contract should be addressed to the two parties to the contract.”
Porter Novelli referred all questions to CMS.
Verma has played a central role in crafting the Trump administration’s health agenda, having overseen the push for Medicaid work requirements and working to unwind parts of Obamacare. She’s also attacked Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals in a series of tweets and speeches, and positioned herself as a critic of wasted federal spending.
It’s unclear how many of the opportunities included in the publicity plan Verma ultimately pursued. The proposal suggested securing attendance to “notable events” — like the Ford’s Theatre Gala — as well as more traditional events federal officials typically attend, like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
It listed various recognitions and awards that CMS could lobby for, including Verma’s selection as one of Washington Business Journal’s “Women Who Mean Business” and Washingtonian magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Washington.”
In October, Washingtonian featured Verma as one of the six federal government officials to make its annual list.
The plan also offered a month-by-month list of conferences and speaking opportunities that Verma could angle for, from health-focused gatherings like the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Health conference to events – such as the TEDWomen conference and FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit — with no direct ties to health care.
The goal, according to the plan: “Position [Verma] as the thought-leader she is.”