New health sec­re­tary sought to fol­low Price

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Ri­cardo Alonso-Zal­divar

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Donald Trump is seek­ing a new health sec­re­tary to take the place of Tom Price, ousted after an out­cry over fly­ing on costly pri­vate char­ters for of­fi­cial travel.

The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices chief over­sees a $1 tril­lion de­part­ment, with 80,000 em­ploy­ees and ju­ris­dic­tion over ma­jor in­sur­ance pro­grams, ad­vanced med­i­cal re­search, drug and food safety, public health, and dis­ease preven­tion.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion also will have to con­tend with re­newed scru­tiny of Cab­i­net mem­bers’ travel. Fol­low­ing news re­ports about Price, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee launched a gov­ern­men­twide in­ves­ti­ga­tion of travel by top po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees.

Trump has named Don J. Wright, a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of health, as act­ing sec­re­tary.

Men­tioned as a pos­si­ble per­ma­nent suc­ces­sor to Price is Seema Verma, a pro­tege of Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence. She now leads the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Med­i­caid Ser­vices, an HHS di­vi­sion that runs health in­sur­ance pro­grams cov­er­ing more than 130 mil­lion Amer­i­cans. Verma’s im­me­di­ate chal­lenge is to man­age the 2018 open en­roll­ment season un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act, which Trump and the GOP-led Congress have been un­able to re­peal.

An­other pos­si­ble HHS can­di­date is Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mis­sioner Scott Got­tlieb, who won some bi­par­ti­san sup­port in his con­fir­ma­tion and is well known in pol­icy, gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try cir­cles.

Price, 62, a former GOP con­gress­man from Ge­or­gia, re­signed Fri­day. His pat­tern of costly trips trig­gered probes that over­shad­owed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda and an­gered his boss. Price’s re­grets and a par­tial re­pay­ment couldn’t save his job.

Price be­came the first mem­ber of Trump’s Cab­i­net to be pushed out in a young ad­min­is­tra­tion that has seen sev­eral high­rank­ing White House aides ousted. He served less than eight months.

On Fri­day, Trump called Price a “very fine per­son,” but added, “I cer­tainly don’t like the op­tics” around his trav­els. Price said in his res­ig­na­tion letter he re­gret­ted that “re­cent events have cre­ated a dis­trac­tion.”

Pri­vately, Trump had been telling as­so­ciates in re­cent days that Price 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’s re­pay­ment of $51,887.31 for his own travel costs did not pla­cate the White House.

The total travel cost, in­clud­ing the sec­re­tary’s en­tourage, 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 Af­ford­able Care Act.

But Price be­came more of a sup­port­ing player in the GOP’s health care cam­paign, while Pence took the lead, par­tic­u­larly with the Se­nate.

The per­cep­tion of Price jet­ting around — in­clud­ing a trip in May to Africa and Europe — while GOP law­mak­ers la­bored to re­peal “Oba­macare” raised eye­brows on Capi­tol Hill. Price flew on mil­i­tary air­craft over­seas.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Fri­day that Price worked hard to help that cham­ber pass its plan be­fore the GOP ef­fort reached an im­passe in the Se­nate.

“I will al­ways be grate­ful for Tom’s ser­vice to this country,” he said.

Seema Verma leads the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Med­i­caid Ser­vices.

Scott Got­tlieb cur­rently leads the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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