Health sec­re­tary re­signs over flights

Price had trav­eled fre­quently on tax­payer-funded char­ters

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - U.S. Mis­sion in Geneva Juliet Eilperin Amy Gold­stein and John Wag­ner, The Wash­ing­ton Post

WASH­ING­TON — Tom Price, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s em­bat­tled health and hu­man ser­vices sec­re­tary, re­signed Fri­day amid sharp crit­i­cism of his ex­ten­sive use of tax­payer-funded char­ter flights, the White House said.

The an­nounce­ment came shortly af­ter Trump said that he con­sid­ered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics” and planned to make a de­ci­sion by the end of the day.

By that point, the pres­i­dent had al­ready re­ceived Price’s res­ig­na­tion let­ter. In a state­ment shortly af­ter­ward, the White House said Trump would des­ig­nate Don Wright as act­ing sec­re­tary. Wright has been the deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for health and di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion and Health Pro­mo­tion.

Price sub­mit­ted a four-para­graph res­ig­na­tion let­ter in which he

said he re­gret­ted “that the re­cent events have cre­ated a dis­trac­tion” from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ob­jec­tives. “Suc­cess on these is­sues is more im­por­tant than any one per­son,” he said.

Not long af­ter, HHS staff mem­bers re­ceived a mes­sage from Price prais­ing em­ploy­ees as “ded­i­cated, com­mit­ted” and say­ing it had been “a great joy” to serve with them.

He closed: “Duty is Ours — Re­sults are the Lord’s!”

Price had given ev­ery in­di­ca­tion this week that he in­tended to fight to keep his job. Dur­ing an in­ter­view Thurs­day night on Fox News, he said he planned “to not only re­gain the trust of the Amer­i­can peo­ple but gain the trust of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the pres­i­dent.”

Price, a Ge­or­gia mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon, an­nounced Thurs­day that he would re­im­burse the gov­ern­ment for a frac­tion of the costs of his char­ter flights in re­cent months. An HHS of­fi­cial said Price would write a check for $51,887.31, which ap­pears to cover the cost of his seat on the flights but not the seats of his staffers.

Trump’s ad­vis­ers said the pres­i­dent was par­tic­u­larly dis­com­fited by Price’s be­hav­ior be­cause he had run as a cham­pion for “for­got­ten” Amer­i­cans, for whom costly char­ter-plane travel seemed par­tic­u­larly egre­gious.

“It speaks to peo­ple who think Wash­ing­ton is al­ready be­yond hope and out of touch,” said Barry Ben­nett, a cam­paign ad­viser last year.

Ex­penses crit­i­cized

Sim­i­lar ac­cu­sa­tions swirling around four other Cab­i­net mem­bers — over sim­i­larly ex­pen­sive or un­usual travel — have only height­ened the cyn­i­cism. De­tails emerged Fri­day about a trip that Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin took to Europe in July. In be­tween meet­ings with Dan­ish and Bri­tish of­fi­cials, he and his wife went to the Wim­ble­don ten­nis tour­na­ment and took a cruise on the Thames. The gov­ern­ment paid for the flights of both of them and some ex­penses.

Politico, which first re­ported on Price’s re­peated use of pri­vate planes, has es­ti­mated that the to­tal ex­pense of the tax­payer-funded trips ex­ceeded $400,000 — and it re­ported Thurs­day that his White House-ap­proved travel on mili- tary planes to Africa, Europe and Asia had cost more than $500,000.

Af­ter the HHS in­spec­tor gen­eral ini­ti­ated an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Price first said he would sus­pend such trips un­til the in­quiry was com­plete. On Thurs­day he pledged to no longer take such flights, say­ing he re­gret­ted “the con­cerns this has raised re­gard­ing the use of tax­payer dol­lars.”

Trump had also di­rected at Price some of his frus­tra­tion over the in­abil­ity of Repub­li­cans in Congress to pass a health­care re­place­ment bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and former Speaker Newt Gin­grich of Ge­or­gia had pushed for the then-con­gress­man to lead HHS, ar­gu­ing that Price’s med­i­cal and pol­icy ex­per­tise and con­gres­sional ties could help Trump de­liver on his vow to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Dur­ing a speech in July to a gath­er­ing of Boy Scouts, Trump said — jok­ingly at the time — that Price could lose his job if a bill didn’t pass.

“He bet­ter get the votes,” Trump said. “Oth­er­wise I will say, ‘Tom, you’re fired.’”

Sev­eral con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans praised Price on Fri­day. Ryan called him “a good man” and said, “He has spent his en­tire adult life fight­ing for oth­ers, first as a physi­cian and then as a leg­is­la­tor and pub­lic ser­vant. He was a leader in the House and a su­perb health sec­re­tary.”

Other com­plaints

The ruckus prompted by the sec­re­tary’s travel habits 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 of Ore­gon, 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 the pur­chase and sev­eral smaller ones he had made in the com­pany the pre­vi­ous year.

Other crit­i­cism of Price re­volved around his un­com­mon re­liance on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from the health-care in­dus­try. Dur­ing his 2016 cam­paign for a sev­enth House term, he ac­cepted more than $700,000 from physi­cians, hos­pi­tals, drug com­pa­nies and health in­sur­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics.

Wright, the new act­ing sec­re­tary, trained as a physi­cian and pub­lic health spe­cial­ist and fo­cused on fam­ily medicine and pre­ven­tive care. Be­fore ar­riv­ing at HHS about a decade ago, he had ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in oc­cu­pa­tional health. In re­sponse to the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks and Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, he con­vened con­fer­ences de­signed to im­prove hos­pi­tals’ prepa­ra­tion for var­i­ous kinds of dis­as­ters.

A ca­reer of­fi­cial, thought to be more Repub­li­can than Demo­crat, Wright had prom­i­nent roles in both the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is con­sid­ered to be some­one who knows HHS op­er­a­tions and has served in prior sit­u­a­tions as a com­pe­tent in­terim ex­ec­u­tive, ac­cord­ing to one long­time pub­lic health of­fi­cial.

TOM PRICE said he re­gret­ted that re­cent events cre­ated a “dis­trac­tion.”

Tom Price, then the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s health and hu­man ser­vices sec­re­tary, snapped a photo in May dur­ing a visit to Geneva. Politico, which first re­ported on Price’s re­peated use of pri­vate planes, has es­ti­mated that the to­tal ex­pense of the tax­payer-funded trips ex­ceeded $400,000.

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