Washington: Embattled US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has resigned amid an uproar over his use of private and military jets at taxpayer expense while heading one of the US’s largest government agencies.
Price, 62, quit after it was revealed by Politico that he took more than two dozen private flights at taxpayer expense as well as trips to Europe, Africa and Asia on military aircraft, at a total cost of more than $US1 million. It comes a day after he said he would reimburse the government for the flight and as the HHS department’s Office of Inspector General and Congress launched investigations.
Price is the first cabinet secretary to leave the administration, though President Donald Trump’s volatile White House has already seen the departure of several top staffers.
Trump had hinted earlier in the day that Price’s time with the administration could be close to coming to an end. Asked whether he had sought Price’s resignation, the President said, “no, but we’ll see what happens later on.”
On Thursday, Trump made it clear that he was upset with the health secretary. “I am not happy with him,” he said.
Price’s exit could distract from other administration priorities like tax reform. It may also raise more questions about other agency heads who have taken taxpayer-funded trips on private aircraft, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, as reported by CBS; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, according to the Washington Post.
Trump intends to designate Don Wright of Virginia to serve as acting secretary as early as Friday night local time.
Price’s seven-month round trip in and out of the health agency was bracketed by questions about his conduct, starting with trading of stock in healthcare companies and ending with the jet trips. Price said he would write a check for the chartered jet trips to the US government for $US51,887.31 to cover his seat.
HHS didn’t immediately respond when asked for a comment from Price and if he would still pay back the funds.
Price told Trump in his resignation it was a “privilege to serve you”.
“I have spent forty years both as a doctor and public servant putting people first,” Price wrote. “I regret that the recent events have created a distraction from these important objectives.”
Price’s acting replacement, Wright, also serves as acting assistant secretary for health, overseeing the department’s health policy recommendations, a position he has served in since February. He has a medical degree from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in public health from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
During the administration’s months-long attempt to get Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Price wasn’t an obvious force in the Senate where the effort is indefinitely stalled. He did, however, let the law wither under his administrative tenure. His agency slashed advertising funding meant to get people to sign up for insurance plans sold under the law, and cut budgets for local groups of “navigators” who helped people find the right plan for them. HHS also shortened the time when people could sign up for coverage, and took other steps that critics decried as “sabotage”.
Price’s successor will have to decide whether to try and make Obamacare succeed, attempt to modify it by rewriting its rules and regulations, or allow it to slide into neglect.
“The mission of the Health and Human Services secretary should be to support Americans’ healthcare, not take it away,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. The next HHS secretary must follow the law when it comes to the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to sabotage it.”
One obvious candidate to succeed Price is Seema Verma, who leads the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services and is directly responsible for running much of Obamacare. Another is Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner who has implemented several programs on drug prices and modernizing the agency.
Verma is seen as close to the White House. She worked with Vice President Mike Pence to implement the then-governor’s Healthy Indiana Plan, and has regularly visited Capitol Hill to help push Obamacare repeal efforts.