CMS Correspondence with the White House from March to May 2020

Records released in response to American Oversight’s request for communications between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the White House. The responsive records span March to May 2020. Key highlights are below.

In the Documents

Activities of White House and Public Health Officials

March 17, 2020: Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, sent an email to former Pence aide Olivia Troye, former Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan, presidential special assistant Maria Bonner, and CMS Chief of Staff Brady Brookes with the subject line “Medicaid decision paper.” 

March 25, 2020: Grogan, Brookes, and CMS Deputy Administrator Randy Pate exchanged emails about “EOP comment on SEP guidance,” likely regarding the president’s March decision not to open a special enrollment period for Most of the content is redacted. 

On the same day, an individual whose name is redacted sent an email with the subject line “CMS Updates” to Short; Grogan; White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner; Hope Hicks, counselor to the president; Katie Miller, the vice president’s communications director; Devin O’Malley, the vice president’s press secretary; Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator; and Pete Gaynor, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Birx’s reply is almost entirely redacted other than “Seema” at the beginning of the message, possibly indicating the first sender was CMS Administrator Seema Verma.

March 28, 2020: In an email with the subject line “Data Reporting to Hospitals,” Brookes circulated a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Healthcare Safety Network. This data reporting network was later replaced by the “HHS Protect” system, which has faced allegations of inefficiency and lack of reliability. 

April 6, 2020: An email from this day referred to a call with CEOs regarding serology tests. Participants included Birx, Verma, Grogan, the Food and Drug Administration’s Stephen Hahn, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir, and CDC Director Robert Redfield. After the call, Hahn flagged several follow-up actions and offered to be the “point of contact” for AvaMedDX, a trade association for diagnostics manufacturers. 

April 13, 2020: There was a teleconference including Grogan, Hahn, Birx, and Kimberly Brandt, the principal deputy administrator at CMS. No topic or agenda is included in the records. 

April 19, 2020: Giroir, Redfield, and Gaynor participated in a call with governors about testing. Prior to the call, Doug Hoelscher, the director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, circulated a list of questions frequently received by HHS regional directors.

April 29, 2020: There was a call between Verma and Sean Conley, the physician to the president. 

Communications with the Private Sector

March 18, 2020: A lobbyist from Gula Graham emailed Jeffrey Freeland, a special assistant to the president, and Stephen Pinkos, a senior adviser to the president, about telehealth company Orb Health. The lobbyist emphasized that Orb Health’s network was “bad ass” and would produce “LOTS of wins for the President.” Pinkos directed the lobbyist to send the information to Grogan, who requested more details, saying, “And the ask is? You need Medicare to contract with them to do this? Or some other part of HHS?” The individual replied that Orb Health was seeking HHS funding, and Grogan forwarded this email to Brookes.

March 26, 2020: Henry Kravis, the co-founder of private equity firm KKR, emailed Chris Liddell, the deputy chief of staff for policy coordination at the White House. Kravis said that Envision, which “does all of our billing for the health work we do in the US,” was struggling to complete this billing due to the pandemic, and “If we can’t resolve this quickly, the company will run out of money.” 

According to the email, Kravis asked that Liddell speak with the CEO of Envision. Liddell forwarded the email to Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, who looped in Ken Juster, the ambassador to India; HHS Secretary Alex Azar; National Security Adviser Robert  O’Brien; and White House pandemic task force leader Deborah Birx, and then shared the contact information for Envision Health’s CEO with an individual whose name is redacted. In June, Bloomberg News reported that almost 300 entities affiliated with Envision had received millions of dollars in HHS loans. 

March 27, 2020: After Kushner had a call with Walgreens, a Walgreens employee sent a follow-up email with draft language that “was developed for Secretary Azar to use regulatory authority” that would allow pharmacists to administer coronavirus tests.” In the spring, Kushner took on an outsized role in the pandemic response and sought to use private companies to increase the nation’s testing capacity. 

March 30, 2020: The White House Coronavirus Task Force received an email from the CEO of Invalon, who offered to create a database for coronavirus patient statistics. 

March 31, 2020: A Walgreens representative emailed Kushner, saying that Walgreens had worked with the American Medical Association to soften AMA’s position on pharmacists conducting coronavirus tests. The representative asked that the White House support a legislative provision that would allow for it.

April 2, 2020: Grogan emailed an individual at Cepheid, a diagnostics company that created the Xpert Xpress coronavirus test, and said “Let me know when you can connect.” The contact from Cepheid sent a proposal about C360, a database for testing data, and requested an endorsement from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

April 10, 2020: On April 10, Kellyanne Conway, who was then a counselor to the president, forwarded an email about Ziegler, a private investment bank, from her personal account to her government account. The email included an introduction to an analytics company called Socially Determined that had been “spending time with HHS and state governments to plan for the post-pandemic recovery and needed supportive services and funding.” 

April 13, 2020: An employee of Deerfield Management Company, a health care investment firm, emailed Hahn saying, “I am working to get you more visual material for your discussion.” The employee referenced a “wellness app … to answer important questions about the epidemic.” Hahn forwarded the email, but the recipient’s name is redacted.