Medicare chief Seema Verma under the microscope

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CMS Administrator Seema Verma. (Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary)

WASHINGTON – USA Today is defending longtime Washington bureau chief Susan Page after a congressional investigation revealed that she hosted a “Girls’ Night” event at her home in honor of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma in November 2018.

Page, a longtime member of the D.C. press corps, was chosen recently by the Commission on Presidential Debates to host the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate.

Her leading role in hosting the event at her home raised eyebrows on social media from observers who suggested that it conflicted with her ability to cover the administration as an impartial journalist. Reporters are supposed to maintain an arm’s length relationship with their sources, and hosting parties for them arguably compromises this role.

The investigation targeted Verma’s “use of taxpayer funds to retain communications consultants with strong Republican political ties.” A report, including billing documents, was released on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (The investigation was conducted by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Senate Committee on Finance Minority, and Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Minority.)

A Politico story on Thursday called attention to Verma’s spending on public-relations consultants but did not identify Page as a host of an event.

According to the investigation, taxpayers paid $2,933 for organizing the “Girls’ Night” event.

But, USA Today spokesperson Chrissy Terrell said on Thursday afternoon that Page was “unaware” that Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was billed for the event, which the newspaper said was held to honor “two women who had recently gotten significant appointments, Heather Wilson to head the Air Force and Seema Verma to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – both milestone moments to be recognized.”

The newspaper defended Page’s decision to host the gathering, which the publication said are “routinely hosted” by female journalists to “honor significant accomplishments of both Democratic and Republican women,” with the journalists footing the bill. Page paid $4,025 for catering, plus several hundred dollars for beverages and cash tips for the wait staff.

“USA Today is fully aware of these long-standing events that recognize the accomplishments of women and fall well within the ethical standards that our journalists are expected to uphold,” the publication said, adding that Page “was not paid or reimbursed by the federal government” for the event.

Republican communications consultant Pam Stevens, who was reportedly “working to raise the brand of Verma,” is the longtime organizer of the social gatherings and sends out the invitations.

The publication said that “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, CBS News correspondent Rita Braver and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell have hosted similar events in the past, which are considered to be off-the-record for reporting purposes and are held at either host’s homes or a restaurant.

Page did not respond to requests for comment about her decision to host the event.

The congressional investigation into Verma concluded that her consultants “charged CMS nearly $6 million for work that included boosting her public profile and personal brand, serving as her preferred communications advisers, arranging private meetings for her with media personalities and other high-profile individuals, and routinely traveling with her to events across the country.”

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