Em­bat­tled Price re­signs from health sec­re­tary post

Costly char­ter flights be­came dis­trac­tion for Trump White House

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Front Page - BY RI­CARDO ALONSO-ZAL­DIVAR AND JONATHAN LEMIRE The As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON — Tom Price, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s health sec­re­tary, re­signed Fri­day af­ter his costly travel trig­gered in­ves­ti­ga­tions that over­shad­owed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda and an­gered his boss.

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 GOP con­gress­man from the At­lanta sub­urbs, Price served less than eight months.

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.

Pri­vately, Trump has been telling as­so­ci­ates in re­cent days that his health chief had be­come a dis­trac­tion. Trump felt 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.

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

The flap prompted scru­tiny of other Cab­i­net mem­bers’ travel, as the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form com­mit­tee launched a gov­ern­men­twide in­ves­ti­ga­tion of top po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees. Other de­part­ment heads have been scram­bling to ex­plain their own travel.

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke faced scru­tiny over three char­ter flights while in of­fice, in­clud­ing a $12,375 late-night trip from Las Ve­gas to his home state of Mon­tana in June. On Fri­day, he dis­missed the con­tro­versy over char­ter flights as “a lit­tle BS over travel,” but he said tax­pay­ers do have the right to know of­fi­cial travel costs.

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, was un­clear. Politico, which first re­ported on Price’s re­peated use of char­tered jets, has es­ti­mated the to­tal ex­pense of the tax­payer-funded trips ex­ceeded $400,000 — and it re­ported early Thurs­day evening that his White House-ap­proved flights on mil­i­tary planes to Africa, Europe and Asia cost more than $500,000.

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.

But Price be­came more of a sup­port­ing player in the GOP’s fu­tile health care cam­paign, while Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence took the lead, par­tic­u­larly with the Se­nate. The per­cep­tion of Price jet­ting around while GOP law­mak­ers la­bored to re­peal “Oba­macare” raised eye­brows on Capi­tol Hill.

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 GOP plan.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Fri­day that Price had 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.

A Pence protege, Seema Verma, has been men­tioned as a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to Price. Verma al­ready leads the Cen­ters for Medi­care and 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 J. 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 HHS 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 fa­vored 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.

On a trip in June to Nashville, Tenn., Price also had lunch with his son, who lives in that city, ac­cord­ing to Politico. An­other trip was from Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs to Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port, a dis­tance of 135 miles.

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.

The ruckus fol­lowed com­plaints ear­lier this year by Democrats and other crit­ics about his ethics for a sep­a­rate rea­son: pri­vate in­vest­ments he made while a House mem­ber in health care com­pa­nies that could have ben­e­fited from bills that he spon­sored.

At his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in late Jan­uary, the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee’s se­nior Demo­crat, Sen. Ron Wy­den, Ore., ac­cused the nom­i­nee of “a con­flict of in­ter­est and an abuse of po­si­tion.” The main fo­cus of such crit­i­cism in­volved Price’s largest stock pur­chase in 2016 — be­tween $50,000 and $100,000

— in an Aus­tralian bio­med­i­cal firm called In­nate Im­munother­a­peu­tics.

The in­vest­ment co­in­cided with fi­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions on the sweep­ing 21st Cen­tury Cures bill, aimed in part at help­ing to ac­cel­er­ate clin­i­cal tri­als and ap­proval of drugs like In­nate’s.

Price ac­knowl­edged that the pur­chase, and sev­eral smaller ones he’d made in the com­pany the pre­vi­ous year, oc­curred with­out an in­vest­ment bro­ker. Price con­tended that he re­ceived no insider in­for­ma­tion ahead of time.

Outgoing Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom Price had of­fered to re­pay $51,887.31 for his own travel costs.

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