Verma confirmation hearing: CMS pick finally confronted with ethics concerns

Although industry experts expected Democrats to press Seema Verma on her business ties and potential conflict of interest issues while advising Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana, she faced only one question about it toward the end of Thursday’s confirmation hearing for her nomination as head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

After nearly three hours of questioning, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Finance Committee, finally asked Verma about her role as a consultant working on a program for Indiana while being paid by contractors the state hired to carry out the program. Among those contractors: Hewlett Packard (HP), the largest operator of state Medicaid claims processing systems.

While Indiana ethics law does not technically apply to contractors, Wyden asked how it wasn’t a conflict for Verma—the founder and CEO of health policy consulting firm SVC Inc.—to sit on “both sides of the negotiating table.”

Verma responded that she holds herself to the highest ethical standards. She said her company sought an ethics opinion from the state to make sure there were no conflicts with her work with HP. Verma said her company helped HP develop communication materials about system changes and it had nothing to do with her work with the state on policy issues.

There was no overlap, according to Verma, who said that if there was an issue of concern, she would recuse herself from the meeting and leave the room.

Wyden chided Verma for failing to specifically answer questions about her stance on Medicaid block grants, vouchers, Medicaid privatization and strategies to reduce or negotiate with drugmakers over drug prices.

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He said he was troubled that the Senate Finance Committee didn’t get a sense of how she would approach these issues or a job responsible for $1 trillion of spending to oversee the healthcare of approximately 100 million Americans. “This committee needs answers and the public needs answers,” Wyden said.