Trump's health secretary resigns over use of charter flights on taxpayers' dime

U.S. President Donald Trump’s health secretary resigned Friday, after his costly travel triggered investigations that overshadowed the administration’s agenda and angered his boss. Tom Price’s regrets and partial repayment couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s cabinet to be pushed out in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. A former Republican congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, Price served just eight months.

It was the latest blow to the Trump White House, which has struggled to get major legislative achievements passed by Congress and has been embroiled in one controversy after another since Trump took office in January.There have been about a dozen high-ranking departures from the Trump administration.

Publicly, Trump had said he was “not happy” with Price for repeatedly using private charter aircraft for official trips on the taxpayer’s dime, when cheaper commercial flights would have done in many cases.

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Price said in his resignation letter that he regretted that ‘recent events have created a distraction.’ (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Price’s abrupt resignation was announced an hour after Trump told reporters on Friday he was disappointed in Price’s use of private aircraft and added, “I certainly don’t like the optics.” 

“Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas Price offered his resignation earlier today and the president accepted,” the White House said in a statement.

Privately, Trump has been telling associates in recent days that his health chief had become a distraction and was overshadowing his tax overhaul agenda and undermining his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, according to three people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Price said in his resignation letter that he regretted that “recent events have created a distraction.”

In  the letter, Price offered little in the way of contrition. He said he had been working to reform the U.S. health care system and reduce regulatory burdens, among other goals.

Other cabinet members’ travel under scrutiny

The flap prompted scrutiny of other cabinet members’ travel, as the House oversight and government reform committee launched a government-wide investigation of top political appointees. Other department heads have been scrambling to explain their own travel.

The Washington Post on Friday reported that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin attended a Wimbledon tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and took a cruise on the Thames River this summer during a 10-day trip to discuss veterans’ health issues in Britain and Denmark.

Shulkin, who travelled on a commercial airline, was accompanied on the trip by his wife, whose airfare was paid for by the government and who received a per diem for meals, the Post said, noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs said she was travelling on “approved invitational orders.”

His six-person traveling party included an acting undersecretary of health and her husband as well as two aides. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people, the Post said.

Price’s repayment of $ 51,887.31 US for his own travel costs and his public expression of regrets did not placate the White House. The total travel cost, including the secretary’s entourage, was unclear. It could amount to several hundred thousand dollars.

An orthopedic surgeon turned politician, Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. When Price joined the administration, Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new health care bill to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin attended a Wimbledon tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and took a cruise on the Thames River this summer during a 10-day trip to discuss veterans’ health issues in Britain and Denmark, the Washington Post reported on Friday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

But Price became more of a supporting player in the Republican Party’s futile health care campaign, while Vice-President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly in dealing with the Senate. The perception of Price jetting around while Republican lawmakers laboured to repeal “Obamacare” — including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe — raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Price flew on military aircraft overseas.

Although much of Trump’s ire over the health-care failure has been aimed at the Republican-controlled Congress, associates of the president said he also assigns some blame to Price, who he believes did not do a good job of selling the Republican plan.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, said Friday that Price had worked hard to help that chamber pass its plan before the Republican effort reached an impasse in the Senate. “I will always be grateful for Tom’s service to this country,” he said.

Potential successor 

A Pence protege, Seema Verma, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Price. Verma already leads the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which runs health insurance programs that cover more than 130 million Americans.

Another possible HHS candidate: FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who won some bipartisan support in his confirmation and is well known in policy, government and industry circles.

Trump named Don Wright, a deputy assistant secretary of health, to serve as acting secretary.

Price, 62, was seen in Congress as a foe of wasteful spending. As health secretary, he led a $ 1 trillion department whose future is the key to managing mounting federal budgetary deficits. As secretary, Price criticized the Medicaid health program for low-income people, saying it doesn’t deliver results commensurate with the hundreds of billions of dollars taxpayers spend on it. As a congressman, he favoured Medicare privatization.

But Price’s image as a budget hawk took a hit when reports of his official travel started bubbling up. Price used private charter flights on 10 trips with multiple segments, when in many cases cheaper commercial flights were available. His charter travel was first reported by the news site Politico.

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Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Price. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

On a trip in June to Nashville, Price also had lunch with his son, who lives in that city, according to Politico. Another trip was from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 216 kilometres.

The reports triggered a review by the HHS inspector general’s office, which is looking into whether Price’s travel violated federal travel regulations. Those rules generally require officials to minimize costs.

The controversy over Price was a catalyst for Congress launching a bipartisan probe of travel by political appointees across the administration. The House oversight committee has requested travel records from the White House and 24 federal departments and agencies.

Initially, Price’s office said the secretary’s busy scheduled forced him to use charters from time to time.

But later Price’s response changed, and he said he’d heard the criticism and concern, and taken it to heart. His office said it would co-operate fully with investigators and he’d cease using charter flights while the inspector general investigated. Finally, he offered regrets and a repayment of his own costs, and said he’d stick to commercial flights.

Trump on Friday called Price a “very fine person.”

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