While the two health officials briefly tempered their quarrel, Verma was first left out of the White House Coronavirus task force chaired this year by Azar, before being added to the group after Pence took over at the end of February. The White House has increasingly promoted Verma as the public face of its response to coronaviruses while gradually sidelining Azar.
On Tuesday, she spoke at the White House daily coronavirus press conference and made a long-awaited announcement by hospitals and health organizations: “The health care providers who receive these dollars can basically spend it in the way they see fit. “
But the announcement came after some behind-the-scenes drama, according to three people familiar with the situation: Verma had argued privately against the plan.
Medicare chief opposed unconditional subsidies a day earlier in a White House meeting, the three said, before being dismissed by chief of staff Mark Meadows. Rather, Verma touted its separate plan to lend $ 34 billion in advance payments to healthcare organizations hard hit by the coronavirus epidemic, a measure included in the CARES Act package of Congress. However, the loans carry a potential interest rate of 10.25%, alarming hospitals and other providers who fear paying them back. In a bipartisan request, 34 senators on Wednesday asked the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, led by Verma, to change or cancel interest rates.
Supporters of Azar described this episode as another in a long series of efforts by Verma – in principle the deputy secretary of health – to gain attention. Verma’s announcement was not urgent and could have waited until Azar returned to work on Wednesday, said two officials.
A Verma ally said it supports unconditional $ 30 billion in grants and that the Medicare administrator is focused solely on managing the program.
CMS spokespersons, supervised by Verma, referred questions about the episode to the HHS, which said it would not comment on the White House meetings.