8 Things You Should Know About the Azar, Verma Feud

Trump reportedly wants them to figure it out themselves
Peter Wehrwein

The relationship between CMS Administrator Seema Verma and her boss, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, has descended into a tense feud, according to a series of reports by Politico.  Last week Axios reported  that things have gotten so bad between the two that Azar had a "clear the air" meeting with Verma at Vice President Mike Pence's request. Verma is often described as a Pence protege; she worked on the design of the Indiana Medicaid program when he was governor. A lot of people will be watching to see if that meeting ends the increasingly open warfare. 

If you want to catch up on the Verma-Azar story, check out Politico's Dan Diamond  thread on Tweeter. Diamond is a heavyweight whose reporting led to Tom Price's downfall as HHS secretary. 

Meanwhile. here are eight highlights:

1. Verma spent months developing an alternative to the ACA, only to have Azar kill the plan. "Azar believed Verma’s plan would actually strengthen Obamacare, not kill it," reported Politico.

2.  The already-tense relationship blew up this summer after Verma—in an Oval Office meeting with senior administration officials, including Azar and Trump—criticized Azar's drug pricing proposals. Politico reported that Verma sided with White House officials, including top domestic policy adviser Joe Grogan, an Azar foe in several policy debates. 

3. This fall, Azar kept Verma from traveling with President Trump on Air Force One to make an announcement in Florida about a Medicare initiative championed by her folks at CMS. Verma was eventually allowed on the plane, but still. Azar's HHS has disputed this narrative and said it was just responding to seat limitations identified by teh White House.  

HHS Secretary Alex Azar

4.  A disagreement over Verma's pick as chief of staff led to sex discrimination investigation that found no merit to the complaint but added fuel to the fire—and was further evidence of how bad things are between Azar and Verma. Politico reported that Verma wanted to name Brady Brookes, who was the deputy chief of staff at CMS, as her chief of staff. But Azar's office wanted another candidate—also a woman — to be considered. Brookes ended up getting the job. It is a tangled story but Verma saw Azar's objection as meddling, and, in the words of Diamond, "minimizing her, a woman, in a male-dominated administration."

5. Verma has been criticized for spending millions on communications contracts to raise her profile and CMS's and, in the process, possibly overshadow Azar. According to the Washington Post, the taxpayer-funded contracts total $3.3 million. Pam Stevens, a former media affairs director of the House Republican Conference, was paid $310 an hour to develop a "visibility plan." Another contract, reported the Post, went to Marcus Barlow, a Republican media strategist from Indiana.

6. Over the weekend, a Politico story about Verma filing a claim for government reimbursement for stolen jewelry got a lot of attention. According to Politico, Verma filed a claim for $47,000, $43,000 of which was for her jewelry, after her luggage was stolen on a CMS-related trip in 2018. Eventually, $2,852 of the claim was paid.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma​

7. Laura Ingraham, the influential Fox host, is an Azar ally. In a tweet she called Verma "a debilitating weak link at HHS." Jared Kushner and First Lady Melania Trump are also reportedly on Team Azar. Pence is the most importatn member of Team Verma.

8. So how does President Trump view all this? Axios reported last week that he is "fond of both of them" and "just wants them to figure it out themselves." He has taken some swipes at Azar and is reportedly frustrated with the lack of a successful plan to lower drug prices, which might be fodder in next year's elections.