Medicare administrator bills taxpayers for $43,000 of stolen jewelry

It’s likely you are not familiar with the name Seema Verma. Ms. Verma is the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Her name is in the headlines today because her luggage was stolen out of the back of a rental car during a work trip. She made a claim for reimbursement of her lost possessions.

Seema Verma is the chief administrator for CMS, a Trump appointee. She travels for her job. On Aug. 20, 2018, she filed a claim for the lost property after her bags were stolen in San Francisco the prior month. Her luggage was stolen out of a rented SUV as she was delivering a speech. The items stolen were not insured. The eye-opener in this story is the $43,000 worth of jewelry included in her claim to the Health and Human Services department.

When I read this story in Politico, my first thought was a very basic one – who the heck travels with $43,000 worth of jewelry? It’s not like she was robbed of a multi-karat wedding band set off her ring finger. It turns out she was traveling with two dozen pieces of jewelry and the total value added up to $43,065.

Verma’s claim included $43,065 for about two dozen pieces of jewelry, based off an appraisal she’d received from a jeweler about three weeks after the theft. Among Verma’s stolen jewelry was an Ivanka Trump-brand pendant, made of gold, prasiolite and diamonds, that Verma’s jeweler valued at $5,900.

Verma’s claim also included about $2,000 to cover the cost of her stolen clothes and another $2,000 to cover the cost of other stolen goods, including a $325 claim for moisturizer and a $349 claim for noise-cancelling headphones.

I also pondered why it took Ms. Verma a month to file her claim. I guess the hold up was waiting for an appraisal of the jewelry. You’ll notice the inclusion of the fact that one piece of jewelry was a $5,900 Ivanka Trump-brand pendant. That little nugget was included in the very first sentence of the Politico piece. The Washington media never misses a chance to drag the Trump name into a story, especially a less than stellar story. Apparently Seema Verma wears it often.

The final reimbursement from the government was $2,852.40. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – CMS is included in HHS – explained that the department’s policy is to reimburse loss of property during work trips if the goods are not used for other purposes. In other words, the items would have to be used exclusively as she carried out her job. That is why she was reimbursed so much less than her claim. The policy is to pay at a discounted rate and jewelry is not included within the guidelines of a claim. Her claim was not unusual, according to the spokesperson, as employees’ stolen property during a work trip is reimbursable.

Veema was on a three day trip to Northern California, approved by the ethics counsel. Two other staffers had their luggage stolen on the trip and all three were advised to submit detailed claims. Her original estimate of loss was lower than the claim turned out to be.

Verma’s luggage was stolen out of her rented Chevrolet Tahoe SUV on July 25, 2018, while she was giving a speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, according to statements she gave to the local police and HHS. Verma initially estimated the cost of her lost property as $20,000, according to the police report, before later revising the cost upward when filing her claim to the health department.

Here’s a twist in her story that may justify her poor judgment in traveling with so much jewelry – she lives in Indiana and commutes each week at her own expense to Washington, D.C. Apparently it is normal for her to travel with a collection of jewelry. The speech in San Francisco was noteworthy in the press because it was the first to publicly criticize Medicare for All that is being put forward by Democrats running for president. Her argument is in line with the administration’s position – single-payer health care will destroy the federal health program for older Americans. This would result in “Medicare for None”. The White House was pleased with her speech. A watchdog group filed a complaint against Veema because it alleged she was a federal employee engaging in a policial activity.

Veema has expensive taste in personal purchases, it appears, and that is her prerogative. She has come under fire in her professional life, most recently her spending of taxpayer money for outside public relations consultants. It has been claimed that she is boosting her own personal brand.

The news of the large request for stolen luxury items comes at a time of unusual scrutiny for Verma, who formerly served as a consultant to then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana and has led CMS since March 2017. The $1 trillion health agency administers Medicare, the nation’s health insurance program for seniors; Medicaid, the program for low-income Americans; and Obamacare, among other programs.

Verma has been engaged in an acrimonious feud with HHS Secretary Alex Azar that has spilled over into policy matters and prompted separate closed-door meetings for each official with Vice President Pence. Her spending of taxpayer money has also been under scrutiny by the HHS inspector general, after POLITICO reported in March about her extensive use of outside public relations consultants, some of whom worked to burnish Verma’s personal brand.

The $2.25 million public relations contract was put on hold pending the probe, and Verma has been under investigation from congressional Democrats.

I don’t begrudge Ms. Verma for her personal jewelry collection. I do think she should use better judgment, though. Her jewelry should have been insured. And, she should rethink how she travels with her valuables. As a frequent traveler, she should have known better than to leave such possessions in her luggage unattended. She shouldn’t expect taxpayers to be on the hook for her lack of judgment. The zeroing in on one pendant necklace – the one from Ivanka’s collection – is predictable.