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« on: October 17, 2020, 09:52:55 AM »
The health department’s top lawyer is warning in an internal memo that President Donald Trump's plan to give seniors $200 discount cards to buy prescription drugs could violate election law, according to three officials with knowledge of those legal concerns.

The lawyer’s objection, coupled with his advice to seek approval from the Department of Justice, is a significant blow to Trump’s hope to promote the hastily devised plan before Election Day.

Robert Charrow, a political appointee who serves as the Health and Human Services department's general counsel, warned in the memo that the plan's timing and design could invite legal challenges, those officials said. For instance, Charrow cautioned health officials that moving forward with the proposed $7.9 billion plan — which would be paid for by dipping into one of Medicare's trust funds, and which senior Trump appointees had hoped to tout in letters sent to millions of seniors this week — would spark concerns about inappropriately using federal funds so close to the election.

Meanwhile, Charrow and his office late last week instructed administration officials to seek guidance from the DOJ's public integrity section, which deals with election crimes, before moving forward with the drug-discount plan. That has further stalled the plan as the health department waits for DOJ review, said two officials.

"Every day that passes is one less day" to roll out the plan before the election, said one of the officials.

Trump announced the plan in a speech on Sep. 24, promising that the "incredible" cards would be mailed to seniors in the "coming weeks," and POLITICO last week detailed how administration officials like White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma were rushing to realize the president's vision.

Meadows and Verma had hoped to gain approval from legal and budget officials by Oct. 9 in order to send letters to 39 million seniors this week extolling the administration's new initiative, according to five officials with knowledge of the plan and draft documents obtained by POLITICO. The cards themselves would have been produced and distributed across the rest of the year, with many seniors receiving them after the election.

Meadows and Verma have justified the drug cards as an authorized "test" of whether drug-discount cards would ultimately help Medicare beneficiaries more consistently take their medicine.

But the proposal has stalled since POLITICO's report, as officials have sought to distance themselves from the plan and look for legal cover like the DOJ review, said the people with knowledge of current conversations.

"This plan is quickly becoming radioactive," said one official briefed on the proposal.