Senate Committee backs Trump pick to run Medicare, Medicaid

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's nominee to run the department overseeing the U.S. government's health programs for the elderly and disabled won the backing of a Senate committee on Thursday, paving the way for a full vote in the Senate.

The Senate Committee on Finance voted 13-12 to support Seema Verma to run the $1 trillion Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Verma is the owner of SVC, a healthcare consulting firm, and has helped redesign Medicaid programs in several states, including Indiana.

She worked in Indiana to expand Medicaid to include thousands of additional low-income residents. Those residents are required to make small monthly payments toward their care through health savings accounts.

It is a model that could influence how the Trump administration thinks about providing health care to low-income people. In a speech to Congress on Tuesday, Trump said the government should help Americans buy health insurance through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts.

Verma has worked closely with Vice President Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana awarded her the Sagamore of the Wabash award, typically bestowed on those who have rendered distinguished services to the state or to the governor.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said in a statement that addressing the challenges facing Medicare and Medicaid will require a strong partnership with the administration.

Verma, he said, "will help facilitate that partnership and as we work to repeal and replace Obamacare, she will play a vital role in realigning the focus on patient-centered solutions."

Speaking before a preliminary vote on Wednesday, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon expressed concern that in her confirmation hearing last month, Verma had failed to answer questions about how she would tackle high drug prices.

He also said that while helping manage the state of Indiana's health program, her firm was being paid by companies that were providing services and products to the program.

"She was on both sides of the deal," he said.

Verma has denied any wrong-doing. In a Jan. 31 letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, she outlined various steps she would take to avoid any conflicts of interest if confirmed as administrator of CMS, including divesting her financial interest in SVC Inc within 90 days of confirmation.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)

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