The board of trustees at Cleveland-based MetroHealth System has fired President and CEO Akram Boutros, MD.
Dr. Boutros was fired Nov. 21 after the board received findings of a probe into compensation issues involving more than $1.9 million in supplemental bonuses, Vanessa Whiting, chair of the board, said in a statement posted on the health system’s website. The probe found that between 2018 and 2022, Dr. Boutros authorized the compensation for himself, without disclosure to the board.
“We have taken these actions mindfully and deliberately but with sadness and disappointment,” Ms. Whiting said. “We all recognize the wonderful things Dr. Boutros has done for our hospital and for the community. However, we know of no organization permitting its CEO to self-evaluate and determine their entitlement to an additional bonus and at what amount, as Dr. Boutros has done.”
Dr. Boutros took the helm of MetroHealth in 2013. Last year, Dr. Boutros announced his plans to retire at the end of 2022. In September, MetroHealth named Airica Steed, EdD, RN, its next president and CEO. Dr. Steed, who is executive vice president and system COO of Sinai Chicago Health System, will take the helm of MetroHealth Dec. 5, according to Ms. Whiting’s statement. Meanwhile, Nabil Chehade, MD, executive vice president and chief clinical transformation officer at MetroHealth, will assume the CEO’s duties on an interim basis.
Ms. Whiting said MetroHealth discovered the compensation issues related to Dr. Boutros while preparing for the CEO transition, and an internal investigation took place, led by the Tucker Ellis law firm.
She said Dr. Boutros admitted to conducting self-assessments of his performance under specific metrics he established and authorizing payment to himself of more than $1.9 million in supplemental bonuses between 2018 and 2022.
According to Ms. Whiting, Dr. Boutros repaid more than $2.1 million in October, representing the supplemental bonus money paid without board approval for performance in calendar years 2017 through 2021, plus more than $124,000 in interest.
She said the board has also implemented immediate CEO spending and hiring limitations through Dec. 31, 2022, and Dr. Boutros has self-reported to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
MetroHealth’s internal investigation is ongoing.
Among Dr. Boutros’ accomplishments at MetroHealth were helping annual revenue increase from $785 million to more than $1.5 billion; growing the health system’s workforce from 6,200 to nearly 8,000 while seeing employee minimum wage increase to $15 per hour; and developing Ohio’s only Ebola treatment center.
A nurse was charged with murder Aug. 23 for allegedly causing the death of a 97-year-old patient at Baptist Health Lexington (Ky.), the Lexington Police Department said in a statement.
Eyvette Hunter, RN, was indicted in the death of James Morris. Ms. Hunter “intentionally performed actions of medical maltreatment” to Mr. Morris on April 30, and he died as a result of those actions on May 5, police said.
Ms. Hunter’s nursing license was also suspended this week, according to the Kentucky Board of Nursing.
The order suspending her license said Ms. Hunter administered lorazepam, a sedative, to Mr. Morris without a physician’s order, according to WKYT. Another nurse found the patient a short time later with labored breathing, and he died May 5. His cause of death was listed as aspirational pneumonia.
Ms. Hunter admitted to administering the drug to Mr. Morris without an order, according to WKYT.
“We have learned that a former nurse at our hospital has been arrested on criminal charges. The nurse has not worked here since April 30,” Baptist Health said in an Aug. 23 statement, according to WKYT. “The nurse was terminated and was reported to the Kentucky Board of Nursing. The hospital has fully cooperated with the police investigation. Patient care and safety are always our top priorities. Out of respect for the family and because this is a criminal matter, we are not able to talk about the investigation.”
The American Hospital Association, on behalf of its nearly 5,000 healthcare organizations, is urging the Justice Department to probe routine denials from commercial health insurance companies.
Specifically, the AHA is asking the Justice Department to establish a task force to conduct False Claims Act investigations into the insurers that routinely deny payments to providers, according to a May 19 letter to the department.
The request from the AHA comes after HHS’ Office of Inspector General released a report April 27 that found Medicare Advantage Organizations sometimes delayed or denied enrollees’ access to services although the provider’s prior authorization request met Medicare coverage rules.
“It is time for the Department of Justice to exercise its False Claims Act authority to both punish those MAOs that have denied Medicare beneficiaries and their providers their rightful coverage and to deter future misdeeds,” the AHA said in a letter to the Justice Department. “This problem has grown so large — and has lasted for so long — that only the prospect of civil and criminal penalties can adequately prevent the widespread fraud certain MAOs are perpetrating against sick and elderly patients across the country.”
CELINA, Tenn. — It was about 1 a.m. on April 19, 2016, when a burglary alarm sounded at Dale Hollow Pharmacy in Celina, a tiny town in the rolling, wooded hills near the Kentucky border.
Two cops responded. As their flashlights bobbed in the darkness, shining through the pharmacy windows, they spotted a sign of a break-in: pill bottles scattered on the floor.
The cops called the co-owner, Thomas Weir, who arrived within minutes and let them in. But as quickly as their flashlights beamed behind the counter, Weir demanded the cops leave. He said he’d rather someone “steal everything” than let them finish their search, according to a police report and body camera footage from the scene.
“Get out of there right now!” Weir shouted, as if shooing off a mischievous dog. “Get out of there!”
The cops argued with Weir as he escorted them out. They left the pharmacy more suspicious than when they’d arrived, triggering a probe in a small town engulfed in one of the most outsize concentrations of opioids in a pill-ravaged nation.
Nearly six years later, federal prosecutors have unveiled a rare criminal case alleging that Celina pharmacy owners intentionally courted opioid seekers by filling dangerous prescriptions that would have been rejected elsewhere. The pharmacies are accused of giving cash handouts to keep customers coming back, and one allegedly distributed its own currency, “monkey bucks,” inspired by a pet monkey that was once a common sight behind the counter. Two pharmacists admitted in plea agreements they attracted large numbers of patients from “long distances” by ignoring red flags indicating pills were being misused or resold. In their wake, prosecutors say, these Celina pharmacies left a rash of addiction, overdoses, deaths, and millions in wasted tax dollars.
“I hate that this is what put us on the map,” said Tifinee Roach, 38, a lifelong Celina resident who works in a salon not far from the pharmacies and recounted years of unfamiliar cars and unfamiliar people filling the parking lots. “I hate that this is what we’re going to be known for.”
Celina, an old logging town of 1,900 people about two hours northeast of Nashville, was primed for this drug trade: In the shadow of a dying hospital, four pharmacies sat within 1,000 feet of each other, at the crux of two highways, dispensing millions of opioid pills. Before long, that intersection had single-handedly turned Tennessee’s Clay County into one of the nation’s pound-for-pound leaders of opioid distribution. In 2017, Celina pharmacies filled nearly two opioid prescriptions for every Clay County resident — more than three times the national rate — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Visitors once came to Celina to tour its historical courthouse or drop their lines for smallmouth bass in the famed fishing lake nearby. Now they came for pills.
Soon after Weir’s police encounter in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration set its sights on his two Celina pharmacies, three doors apart — Dale Hollow Pharmacy and Xpress Pharmacy. Separately, investigators examined the clinic of Dr. Gilbert Ghearing, which sat directly between Dale Hollow and Xpress and leased office space to a third pharmacy in the same building, Anderson Hometown Pharmacy. Its owners and operators have not been charged with any crime.
In December, a federal judge unsealed indictments against Weir and the other owners of Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies, Charles “Bobby” Oakley and Pamela Spivey, alleging they profited from attracting and filling dangerous and unjustifiable opioid prescriptions. Charges were also filed against William Donaldson, the former pharmacist and owner of Dale Hollow, previously convicted of drug dealing, who allegedly recruited most of the customers for the scheme.
The pharmacists at Dale Hollow and Xpress, John Polston and Michael Griffith, pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and health care fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement against the other suspects.
Ghearing was indicted on drug distribution charges for allegedly writing unjustifiable opioid prescriptions in a separate case in 2019. He pleaded not guilty, and his case is expected to go to trial in September.
‘An American Tragedy’
The Celina indictment comes as pharmacies enter an era of new accountability for the opioid crisis. In November, a federal jury in Cleveland ruled pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart could be held financially responsible for fueling the opioid crisis by recklessly distributing massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties. The ruling — a first of its kind — is expected to reverberate through thousands of similar lawsuits filed nationwide.
Criminal prosecutions for such actions remain exceedingly rare. The Department of Justice in recent years increased prosecutions of doctors and pain clinic staffers who overprescribed opioids but files far fewer charges against pharmacists, and barely any against pharmacy owners, who are generally harder to hold directly responsible for prescriptions filled at their establishments.
In a review of about 1,000 news releases about legal enforcement actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2019, KHN identified fewer than 10 similar cases involving pharmacists or pharmacy owners being criminally charged for filling opioid prescriptions. Among those few similar cases, none involved allegations of so many opioids flowing readily through such a small place.
The Celina case is also the first time the Department of Justice sought a restraining order and preliminary injunction against pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act, said David Boling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee. DOJ used the civil filing to shut down Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies quickly in 2019, allowing prosecutors more time to build a criminal case against the pharmacy owners.
Former U.S. Attorney Don Cochran, who oversaw much of the investigation, said the crisis in Celina was so severe it warranted a swift and unique response.
Cochran said it once made sense for small pharmacies to be clustered in Celina, where a rural hospital served the surrounding area. But as the hospital shriveled toward closure, as have a dozen others in Tennessee, the competing pharmacies turned to opioids to sustain themselves and got hooked on the profits, he said.
“It’s an American tragedy, and I think the town was a victim in this,” Cochran said. “The salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar folks that lived there were victimized by these people in these pharmacies. I think they knew full well this was not a medical necessity. It was just a money-making cash machine for them.”
And much of that money came from taxpayers. In its court filings, DOJ argues the pharmacies sought out customers with Medicaid or Medicare coverage — or signed them up if they didn’t have it. To keep these customers coming back, the pharmacies covered their copays or paid cash kickbacks whenever they filled a prescription, prosecutors allege. The pharmacies collected more than $2.4 million from Medicare for opioids and other controlled substances from 2012 to 2018, according to the court filings.
Prosecutors say the pharmacies also paid kickbacks to retain profitable customers with non-opioid prescriptions. In one case, Dale Hollow gave $100 “payouts” to a patient whenever they filled his prescription for mysoline, an anti-seizure drug, then used those prescriptions to collect more than $237,000 from Medicare, according to Polston’s plea agreement.
Attorneys for Weir, Oakley, Donaldson, Spivey, Polston, and Griffith either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to requests for comment.
Ronald Chapman, an attorney for Ghearing, defended the doctor’s prescriptions, saying he’d done “the best he [could] with what was available” in a rural setting with no resources or expertise in pain management.
Chapman added that, while he does not represent the other Celina suspects, he had a theory as to why they drew the attention of federal law enforcement. As large corporate pharmacies made agreements with the federal government to be more stringent about opioid prescriptions, they filled fewer of them. Customers then turned to smaller pharmacies in rural areas to get their drugs, he said.
“I’m not sure if that’s what happened in this case, but I’ve seen it happen in many small towns in America. The only CVS down the street, or the only Rite Aid down the street, is cutting off every provider who prescribes opioids, leaving it to smaller pharmacies to do the work,” Chapman said.
Donaldson, reached briefly at his home in Celina on March 9, insisted the allegations levied against Dale Hollow and Xpress could apply to many pharmacies in the region.
“It wasn’t just them,” Donaldson said.
The Monkey and the Monkey Bucks
Long before it was called Dale Hollow Pharmacy, the blue-and-white building that moved millions of pills through Celina was Donaldson Pharmacy, and Donaldson was behind the counter doling out pills.
Donaldson owned and operated the pharmacy for decades as the eccentric son of one of the most prominent families in Celina, where a street, a park, and many businesses bear his surname. Even now, despite Donaldson’s prior conviction for opioid crimes and his new indictment, an advertisement for “Donaldson Pharmacy” hangs at the entrance of a nearby high school.
“Bill has always had a heart of gold, and he would help anyone he could. I just think he let that, well …” said Pam Goad, a neighbor, trailing off. “He’s always had a heart of gold.”
According to interviews with about 20 Celina residents, including Clay County Sheriff Brandon Boone, Donaldson is also known to keep a menagerie of exotic animals, at one point including at least two giraffes, and a monkey companion, “Carlos,” whom he dressed in clothing.
The monkey — a mainstay at Donaldson Pharmacy for years — both attracted and deterred customers. Linda Nelson, who owns a nearby business, said Carlos once escaped the pharmacy and, during a scrap with a neighbor’s dogs, tore down her mailbox by snapping its wooden post in half.
But the monkey wasn’t the only reason Donaldson Pharmacy stood out.
According to a DEA opioid database published by The Washington Post, Donaldson Pharmacy distributed nearly 3 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2014, making it the nation’s 20th-highest per capita distributor during that period. It retained its ranking even though the pharmacy closed in 2011, when Donaldson was indicted for dispensing hydrocodone without a valid prescription.
Donaldson confessed to drug distribution and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The pharmacy’s name was changed to Dale Hollow and ended up with Donaldson’s brother-in-law, Oakley. In 2014, Oakley sold 51% of the business to Weir, who also bought a majority stake of Xpress Pharmacy, three doors away, according to the DOJ’s civil complaint.
Under Weir’s leadership, these two pharmacies became an opioid hub with few equals, prosecutors say. From 2015 to 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were the fourth-and 11th-highest per capita opioid purchasers in the nation, according to the DOJ, citing internal DEA data.
Many of these prescriptions were for Subutex, an opioid that can be used to treat addiction but is itself prone to abuse. Unless the patient is pregnant or nursing or has a documented allergy, Tennessee law requires doctors instead to prescribe Suboxone, an alternative that is much harder to abuse.
But at the Celina pharmacies, prescriptions for Subutex outnumbered those for Suboxone by at least 4-to-1, prosecutors say. In their plea agreements, pharmacists from Dale Hollow and Xpress described stores that thrived on the trade in Subutex, and said Weir set “mandates” for how many Subutex prescriptions to fill and instructed them to “never run out.”
Griffith, the head pharmacist at Xpress, said the pharmacy in 2015 created flyers specifically advertising Subutex, then delivered them on trays of cookies to practices throughout Tennessee, including some hours away. In the following two years, the amount of Subutex dispensed by Xpress increased by about eightyfold, according to his plea agreement.
Dale Hollow didn’t need flyers or cookies. It had Donaldson.
After getting out of prison in 2014, Donaldson was hired by the pharmacy he once owned, where he “recruited and controlled” about 50% to 90% of customers, according to the indictment filed against him. The pharmacy also enticed customers by distributing a Monopoly-like currency called “monkey bucks” — an apparent callback to Carlos — that could be spent at the pharmacy like cash, the indictment states.
Prosecutors also allege that, from a desk inside Dale Hollow, Donaldson would sign customers up for Medicare or Medicaid, then use a vehicle provided by the pharmacy to drive them to a doctor’s office to get opioid prescriptions, then back to Dale Hollow where he’d offer to cover their copays himself if they kept their business at the pharmacy. Sometimes, he would text the Dale Hollow pharmacist with instructions to fill specific prescriptions, or just to fill more of them, according to federal court records.
“Y’all have got to get your numbers up. Fill fill,” Donaldson texted Polston in 2018, according to his plea agreement.
By then, however, all those prescriptions had drawn unwanted attention.
In August 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were raided by DEA agents, who brought with them Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and a television crew. Six months later, DOJ filed its civil complaint, persuading a federal judge to immediately close both pharmacies.
Today, Dale Hollow Pharmacy sits shuttered, as it has been for the past three years, and a paper sign taped to the door says animals are not allowed inside by order of the DEA. The building that was once Xpress Pharmacy reopened this year as an unrelated pharmacy with a fresh coat of paint. Ghearing’s clinic and Anderson Hometown Pharmacy are closed.
Most of Celina’s opioid prescriptions are gone, too. According to the latest available CDC data, Clay County reported about 32 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2020 — one-sixth the rate of 2017’s.
When it planned to go public through a SPAC merger, insurance startup Clover Health told investors that it already had 200,000 direct contracting lives under contract for 2021. But in new guidance shared on Monday, the company now plans to end the year just 70,000 to 100,000 covered lives from direct contracting.
After telling investors that it would more than quadruple its membership base in a year, insurance startup Clover Health is cutting its projections in half.
The insurance startup now plans to end the year with between 70,000 and 100,000 covered lives from direct contracting, a new payment program launched last by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) services last year, according to its most recent earnings report.
But its projections call into question the veracity of those shared when the company was looking to go public. In fact, Kevin Fischbeck, an analyst with Bank of America, called out the discrepancy when he asked the company about estimates that it would have nearly half-a-million members covered through direct contracting by 2023.
Clover could only manage a feeble response, with CFO Joe Wagner saying it was “too early to say in future years exactly where we’re going to end up.”
When asked about the current status of the investigation, co-founder and CEO Vivek Garipalli said it was the company’s policy not to comment on pending inquiries.
In an unusual move, the company fielded questions from Reddit during the investor call, alongside those from analysts.
Clover is one of 53 companies selected to participate in CMS’ direct contracting programs in 2021. The value-based payment models were created under the previous administration, which would allow the startup to strike contracts with doctors who are caring for patients under the traditional Medicare program and manage their care.
In the meantime, most of Clover’s business still comes from its Medicare Advantage plans, where it has 66,300 members, an 18% increase year-over-year. It brought in $200.3 million in revenue in the first quarter, up 21%, but its net loss jumped more than 70% to $48.4 million.
The company also decreased its revenue projections from what it originally told investors last year. The startup said it expects to bring in revenue of $810 million to $830 million by the end of 2021, a decrease from its previous projections of $880 million. A small portion of that, just $20 million to $30 million, would come from direct contracting.
Renton, Wash.-based Providence is being investigated by California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, over allegations that it inappropriately applied religious care restrictions at Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., the Los Angeles Timesreported March 3.
Several women’s health specialists from Hoag submitted a confidential complaint to the attorney general’s office in October, prompting the investigation. The physicians claim Heritage Healthcare, Providence’s physician management division, refused to pay for contraceptive services for HMO patients at Hoag and delayed miscarriage treatment authorizations, among other allegations, according to the complaint referenced by the news outlet.
The physicians also reported Heritage specifically referenced the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in at least one instance when it declined to pay for a patient’s intrauterine device insertion.
Applying the directives would be in violation of conditions set by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, who approved an affiliation between Hoag and Irvine, Calif.-based St. Joseph Health, a Catholic healthcare system, when she was California’s attorney general in 2014. In 2016, St. Joseph merged with Providence, which required Providence to maintain the pre-merger conditions related to women’s health services at Hoag. The only service for which Hoag was subjected to a ban was “direct abortions,” according to the Los Angeles Times report.
In a letter sent to the involved institutions March 2, Mr. Becerra requested Providence provide documents related to the issues by March 23.
“This office is monitoring whether the Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives are or have been applied to any aspect of a service, procedure, or other activity associated with a medical billing code, with the exception of direct abortions, performed by Hoag obstetrician/gynecologists,” the letter reads.
In an emailed statement to the Los Angeles Times, Providence said it “welcomes the Attorney General’s request for further information, and is confident that the review will demonstrate that Providence has always complied with all requirements under the merger conditions.”
In May, Hoag filed a lawsuit seeking to end its affiliation with Providence.
The child welfare agency that serves Miami-Dade and Monroe counties pushed back Wednesday against allegations made by the governor’s chief inspector general, denying claims that it used taxpayer funds to pad excessively high salaries of top executives.
In a statement, Citrus Health Network President and CEO Mario Jardon and Citrus Health Network Board of Directors Chair Patricia Croysdale said that the state did not check with them before issuing the preliminary report and Jardon’s salary, and that of chief operating officer Maria Alonso, “do not come from state funds allocated to Citrus as the lead agency, and are provided at no cost to the state.”
Florida law prohibits a community-based care lead agency that receives state and federal funding to provide welfare services from paying its executives more than 150% of what the Department of Children and Families secretary makes — a threshold estimated at $213,820.
In response to the Citrus Health comments, Meredith Beatrice, spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said that the intent of the report was to highlight agencies that “were either in non-compliance or appeared to have excessive compensation” and will be investigated further.
“Nothing within the document is conclusory or final,’’ she said.
The report says Jardon made $574,660, which the state says includes $360,840 in excess compensation. The state also said Alonso, Jardon’s partner, made $42,379 over the maximum, and the company’s chief information officer, Renan Llanes, made $172 over the limit.
“The Governor’s Office of Inspector General chose to release a preliminary report incorrectly alleging inappropriate use of state funds and excessive executive compensation without first confirming the information in the report directly with Citrus, and without utilizing other publicly available fiscal documents related to our company,’’ the company’s statement said.
The Citrus Health contract began in July 2019, but the state report appears to have used compensation data from tax documents ending in June 2019.
Citrus also pointed to its web site, which has posted a document that shows a 2020-21 budget that includes compensation of $207,711 with “other compensation” of $20,498 for its director. The company said that refers to Esther Jacobo, the director of the Citrus Health Family Care Network, who formerly was the interim secretary at DCF.
A footnote then adds that “CEO and COO are provided at no cost to [Citrus Family Care Network] and DCF.”
“At the beginning of operations as the lead agency, Citrus’ Board of Directors resolved not to burden the budget of the lead agency with the salaries of the CEO and COO of Citrus Health Network,” said Citrus Health Network spokesperson Leslie M. Viega in a statement. “Our CEO and COO’s salaries do not come from any funds allocated to Citrus as the lead agency, regardless of the source, including state-appropriated funds, state-appropriated federal funds, or private funds.”
The company says the salaries are paid through another division, its federally qualified health center which provides behavioral health, primary care, housing for the homeless, and other social services.The Herald/Times asked Citrus Health for a copy of the financial documents that demonstrate this claim but the organization has not provided them.
The inspector general’s investigation is the result of an executive order by DeSantis in February 2020 after the Miami Herald reported and a House of Representatives investigation found that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence paid its chief executive officer, Tiffany Carr, more than $7.5 million over three years.
Carr, who is now a party to two lawsuits, including an attempt by the state to claw back the compensation she was awarded, is currently engaged in negotiations with the attorney general’s office over a mediated settlement.
But it was Carr’s ability to use her network of influential legislators and lobbyists, coupled with the lack of oversight by the Department of Children and Families, that provoked legislators and the governor’s investigators to look into how other non-profits are compensating their executives.
Carr persuaded her board of directors, a close-knit group whom she hand-selected, to approve her compensation package that included thousands of hours of paid leave which she converted to cash.. She justified her salary and bonuses by using comparable salaries of similar organizations but she is alleged to have misrepresented the size of her organization to make the comparisons work to her advantage.
Investigators also suspect Carr avoided declaring millions of dollars in deferred compensation on her tax forms by using a loophole in the tax code.
The governor’s office said the next phase of the investigation will be to meet with the nine community-based care organizations early next week “to explain the process” before the final report is completed by June 30.
“It is important to note that the entities impacted from this review will have an opportunity in late May to offer a written response to the draft of the final report,’’ Beatrice said. “Their responses will be included as an attachment to the final report presented to the governor.”
This week Politico broke the news of a scathing Congressional investigation into the lavish spending of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, centered around boosting her own “brand image” and position among inside-the-beltway Washington power brokers.
According to the report, Verma sidestepped the use of CMS’ internal public relations team, and instead engaged a handpicked group of consultants, who charged the government over $6M in less than two years for their work in polishing her public profile and personal brand, arranging meetings with media, and traveling with her to events around the country.
The spending line items included tens of thousands of dollars focused on “getting Seema on lists”, including Politico’s “50 Most Powerful People in DC” and Washingtonian’s “Most Powerful Women in Washington”. Consultants were paid to arrange op-eds and interviews for Ms. Verma, with outlets such as AARP, Christian Broadcasting Network, and Fox News, and $450 was spent on a makeup artist to ensure Ms. Verma was perfectly camera-ready for a two-minute video shoot. The outside advisers even charged nearly $3,000 to arrange a private “Girls’ Night” event held last November at the home of a USA Today bureau chief, to network Verma with other DC insiders.
This isn’t the first time that Verma’s spending has come under scrutiny. In July the Office of the Inspector General found that Verma’s publicity spending violated federal contracting rules, and she was widely criticized for filing a $47,000 expense request for personal items stolen on an official trip, including a $325 jar of moisturizer and a $5,900 Ivanka Trump-brand necklace.
Public relations expenses to educate the public and promote official initiatives are standard fare, but Verma’s lavish spending, often focused on boosting her personal image, shows a stunning lack of judgement, if not an overt misuse of taxpayer dollars. We’d rather see those dollars put to more worthwhile uses, like educating people on how to best shop for insurance, or how to access testing and other needed care services during the largest healthcare crisis of our lifetimes.