Mick Mulvaney summons feuding health care officials to White House

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma speak during a news conference with HHS Secretary Alex Azar, left, on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in Washington.  Kevin Wolf / AP

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has summoned the administration’s two top health policy officials to meet with him at the White House in an effort to cool down a months-long feud that is reaching a boiling point. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma could meet with Mulvaney as early as today, several senior administration officials confirm to CBS News. 

A White House official confirmed that the two have fought over the administration’s efforts to come up with a replacement to the nation’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act. Politico first reported their battles over an Obamacare alternative, stating that Verma spent six months developing a proposal, only to have Azar scuttle it before President Trump could see it. According to Politico, Azar thought Verma’s plan would end up strengthening the ACA, rather than replacing it.

The two have also been at “each other’s throats” on several other issues, too, ranging from the administration’s work on lowering drug prices to who gets credit for any perceived victories involving health care, according to multiple White House sources.

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President Trump is not expected to attend Mulvaney’s meeting with the two. White House officials maintain that Verma continues to have the support of the president, but Mr. Trump has made it clear that he wants the bickering between Azar and Verma to stop.  

“Secretary Azar’s and Administrator Verma’s top priority is to advance the president’s health care agenda through lowering drug costs, advancing competition in the marketplace, and ensuring Americans have access to high quality, affordable healthcare,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News.

But some White House officials say the dispute has become an obstacle to working relations between the two.

“I would not want to be in between those two,” a senior White House official said of the battle between Azar and Verma.

White House officials claim that the situation has unraveled to a point where the two sides are now spilling or “leaking” unfavorable stories about each other to news outlets.

One story initially broken by Politico and confirmed by CBS News involves a claim Verma filed in 2018 for $47,000 with the government for stolen property, including jewelry, after her luggage was stolen from a rental car while she delivered a work-related speech in San Francisco. The claim was for about $43,000 for jewelry and $4,000 for clothes. She received just $2,852.40.

Some Democrats attacked the claim as a waste of taxpayer money. Congressman Joe Kennedy, of Massachusetts, called it a “bailout for stolen goods she chose not to insure,” according to USA Today. 

Verma’s claim has become an annoyance for many in the West Wing, but CMS considered the story to be part of a smear campaign against her. 

“These recent leaks are part of a targeted campaign to smear the Administrator and undermine the accomplishments of CMS,” a CMS spokesperson told CBS News in a statement. “The Administrator’s number one priority is continuing to deliver on the President’s bold healthcare agenda to ensure Americans have access to high quality, affordable healthcare.”

Both Azar and Verma have powerful allies in the administration. Azar is close to White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Attorney General Bill Barr, while Verma, who oversaw Indiana’s Medicaid program, has close ties to Vice President Pence.

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