Ex-Health chief told to re­pay funds

Tom Price, who left his post amid con­cern about extravagant travel, re­port­edly owes $341,000.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Noam N. Levey noam.levey@latimes.com

WASH­ING­TON — For­mer Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom Price should re­pay the fed­eral gov­ern­ment more than $341,000 for im­prop­erly us­ing char­ter and mil­i­tary air­craft for travel for him­self and his wife, a new report from the agency’s in­de­pen­dent Of­fice of the Inspector Gen­eral has con­cluded.

“The Of­fice of the Sec­re­tary im­prop­erly used fed­eral funds re­lated to for­mer Sec­re­tary Price’s gov­ern­ment travel,” said the report, re­leased Fri­day. Au­di­tors found that 20 of the 21 trips that Price took dur­ing his brief ten­ure as sec­re­tary in 2017 did not meet fed­eral re­quire­ments.

Price, a con­ser­va­tive Ge­or­gia con­gress­man and friend of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) whom Pres­i­dent Trump tapped to lead the health agency, was forced to re­sign in Septem­ber af­ter re­ports by Politico out­lined his ex­ten­sive use of char­ter and mil­i­tary air­craft for routine travel do­mes­ti­cally and around the world.

Many of the flights were be­tween ma­jor U.S. cities served by much cheaper com­mer­cial air­lines.

Af­ter the scan­dal broke, Price said he would re­pay a por­tion of the costs.

But the Of­fice of Inspector Gen­eral rec­om­mended that the health agency re­coup an ad­di­tional $341,616 from Price, who is now serv­ing on the ad­vi­sory board of At­lanta-based Jack­son Health­care.

The inspector gen­eral es­ti­mated that the gov­ern­ment spent nearly $1.2 million on Price’s travel dur­ing his seven months in of­fice. That in­cluded more than $700,000 in mil­i­tary flights on two for­eign and two do­mes­tic trips, as well as more than $480,000 for var­i­ous do­mes­tic trips by pri­vate char­tered air­craft.

The de­part­ment agreed with most of the inspector gen­eral’s rec­om­men­da­tions for tight­en­ing up of­fi­cial travel and re­quested details on the $341,000 that in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the gov­ern­ment should re­coup.

A spokesper­son said the agency would ask the De­part­ment of Jus­tice’s Of­fice of Le­gal Coun­sel to re­view whether there is a le­gal ba­sis to re­coup the money.

Ni­cholas Peters, a spokesman for Price, sug­gested in a state­ment that the costly travel was the re­sult of “good faith mis­takes” by staff. Peters would not say if the for­mer sec­re­tary will re­pay the tax­payer money that the inspector gen­eral says should be re­couped.

Se­nior Democrats on Capi­tol Hill, mean­while, re­dou­bled their crit­i­cism of the for­mer Health sec­re­tary.

“This report con­firms Tom Price’s role as the poster child for the ram­pant waste of tax­payer dol­lars that has oc­curred on Trump’s watch — all while he was pur­su­ing dan­ger­ous poli­cies that in­crease fam­i­lies’ pre­mi­ums and weaken their health­care,” said Ore­gon Sen. Ron Wy­den, the se­nior Demo­crat on the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee.

Wy­den was among many Democrats who op­posed Price’s nom­i­na­tion, cit­ing among other things rev­e­la­tions that while a con­gress­man, Price had traded ex­ten­sively in the stocks of health­care com­pa­nies that could have been af­fected by his votes and ac­tions.

Extravagant spend­ing on travel and of­fice re­mod­el­ing by top of­fi­cials be­came a run­ning story as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion took power in Wash­ing­ton on a pres­i­den­tial prom­ise to “drain the swamp.”

Price was forced out in fall 2017 af­ter his travel drew the ire of Trump, who was also upset over the GOP fail­ure to re­peal Oba­macare.

A suc­cess­ful or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon be­fore win­ning a con­gres­sional seat from the At­lanta sub­urbs, Price rose to be­come one of the top GOP ex­perts on bud­get and health­care is­sues. But as Health sec­re­tary, he never pro­duced a health­care plan to “re­peal and re­place” the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Among other find­ings from the report:

In­ves­ti­ga­tors ques­tioned Price’s as­ser­tion that his of­fi­cial sched­ule pre­vented him from fly­ing com­mer­cial. In one case a White House event cited as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was can­celed, and Price’s of­fice chose to con­tinue with a char­ter flight at a cost of nearly $18,000.

Even among char­ter flight op­tions, Price’s of­fice did not al­ways book the low­est-cost trip. In one case the dif­fer­ence be­tween quoted op­tions amounted to nearly $46,000.

For six trips, Price ei­ther started or ended his travel in his home state of Ge­or­gia, his most fre­quent char­ter travel des­ti­na­tion out­side of his of­fi­cial duty sta­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

Health and Hu­man Ser­vices paid more than $11,500 on com­mer­cial f lights for a Price trip to China, Viet­nam and Ja­pan. But Price ul­ti­mately flew on mil­i­tary trans­port at a cost of more than $430,000, and the agency lost track of what it spent for the com­mer­cial air­line ticket un­til the inspector gen­eral’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors iden­ti­fied the ex­pense.

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