US health secretary resigns amid storm over use of private jets

By on 05/10/2017
Tom Price, former health and human services secretary in the US Federal Government (Image courtesy: Office of the President-elect).

Tom Price stepped down as the US federal government’s health and human services secretary last Friday, amid growing controversy over his use of private and military jets for travel around the US and overseas.

After announcing the resignation of the 62-year-old cabinet member and former senator, who was leading president Donald Trump’s drive to repeal Obamacare, the White House launched an immediate crackdown on the use of private aeroplanes by top officials.

In a memo to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said they should severely restrict the use of “government-owned, rented, leased or chartered aircraft” and will now need advance approval from chief-of-staff John Kelly for most travel.

“Every penny we spend comes from the taxpayer,” said Mulvaney, the Washington Post reported. “Accordingly, with few exceptions, the commercial air system used by millions of Americans every day is appropriate, even for very senior officials.”

Price is the first member of Trump’s cabinet to step down. His resignation comes after Politico reported that the health secretary had racked up more than US$1 million in travel costs since May, including military flights to Europe, Africa and Asia and at least 26 chartered flights on private aircraft in the US.

Many of the chartered flights were between major cities where cheap alternative commercial passenger flights were available, while on some trips Price mixed official business with pleasure or took his wife along, according to Politico.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the health and human services department (HSS) launched a probe into Price’s travel arrangements on 22 September. The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee has also opened an investigation.

By Friday, allegations of lavish arrangements or excessive costs on official trips were being levelled against other cabinet members, including interior secretary Ryan Zinke and veteran affairs secretary David Shulkin.

Trump told reporters on Friday 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, the Washington Post reported.

Shortly afterwards, the White House issued a statement saying that Price had offered his resignation earlier the same day and the President had accepted, designating Don Wright, the acting assistant secretary of health, as his replacement.

A passenger seat in a Gulfstream G550 private jet (Image courtesy: Jetrequest.com).

Yet as recently as Thursday night, Price said in an interview on Fox News that he planned to “not only regain the trust of the American people” but also “gain the trust of the administration and president”, as reported by the Washington Post.

In a statement also released on Thursday, the multimillionaire orthopaedic surgeon from Georgia, who served a Republican congressman for 12 years, said all his travel had been approved by legal and HHS officials.

He pledged to cooperate fully with the OIG review, to take no more private charter flights and to write a personal cheque to the US Treasury for the expenses of his travel on private charter planes.

“The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” he said.

An HHS spokesperson later confirmed that the cheque would be for $51,887.31, which would only cover the cost of his own seats on the chartered flights, as reported by Government Executive.

In his resignation letter to Trump, Price said that he regretted that “the recent events have created a distraction” from the administration’s objectives for health, adding that “success on these issues is more important than any one person”.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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