Health secretary resigns over flights
Price had traveled frequently on taxpayer-funded charters
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.
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.”
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.