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The scandal over Health Secretary Tom Price's private charter flights, explained

Pricey private flights raise new ethical concerns for HHS head.

Tom Price The Washington Post / Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Tom Price, President Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, entered his office under a cloud of ethics questions, dogged by a string of eyebrow-raising investments into pharmaceutical companies during his time as a Congress member.

Now the Georgia Republican is enduring a new round of inquiries about his unprecedented use of private jets for official travel since he joined the Cabinet.

According to a series of reports from Politico, Price has traveled by private plane at least two dozen times as HHS secretary, racking up a bill of $300,000. This was a sharp departure from his predecessors under the Obama administration, Politico noted, who usually flew commercial. Ethics experts have questioned the propriety of such trips.

“This wasteful conduct reflects disdain for the ethical principle of treating public service as a public trust,” Walter Shaub, who ran the US government ethics office under President Barack Obama, told Politico. “Public office isn’t supposed to come with frivolous perks at taxpayer expense.”

Price’s office has sought to defend the secretary, arguing he flew by charter when commercial flights were unfeasible and painting the travel as part of his efforts to reach ordinary Americans, including those ravaged by the hurricanes of the past few weeks. But, according to the Politico reports, Price has still flown privately even when there were viable commercial alternatives, and the charter flights started well before these recent natural disasters.

The HHS secretary is one of several senior Trump administration appointees who entered office plagued by ethical inquiries and who, while serving the president, have reignited those concerns. President Donald Trump came into office promising to “drain the swamp,” and Price is one of those Republicans who has a long record of urging fiscal responsibility.

These reports cast serious doubt on his stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the administration’s ability to deliver on those promises of good governance.

The White House, notably, sought to distance itself from the scandal Friday, telling Bloomberg that it had not approved the flights. The HHS inspector general has also opened an investigation into the secretary’s travel, Politico reported.

Tom Price’s charter flights, explained

The scandal started Tuesday, when Politico reported that Price had taken five private flights over the past week, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. The outlet cited internal HHS documents. He traveled to Maine, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, all for health care-related events.

In a general response to the report, an HHS spokesperson said: “When commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel.”

Politico readily disputed that explanation.

A few examples: Price took a charter flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia, departing at 8:27 am. A commercial United Airlines flight left at almost the exact same time. The United flight would have cost less than $750; the charter trip cost $25,000, according to Politico.

The Politico reporters Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan also noted that Price could have taken an Amtrak train to Philadelphia for less than $100 or been driven by SUV and potentially paid $30 in gas.

Both HHS secretaries under Obama, Kathleen Sebelius and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, flew commercial while traveling in the continental United States, Politico noted. And the Trump administration’s defense — that Price only flew privately when a commercial flight was infeasible — was undercut by further reporting.

On Thursday, Politico reported that Price’s private jet travel was even more extensive: The HHS secretary had taken at least 24 charter flights over the past year. The bill has grown to more than $300,000, the outlet reported, citing federal contracts and people familiar with the situation.

One charter flight from Washington to Nashville cost nearly $18,000, even though there were multiple nonstop commercial flights available that cost as little as $200.

HHS doubled down, arguing that Price was traveling to reach “the real American people,” as the department put it to the Washington Post, and the agency told Politico that Price went to see those devastated by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Then again, Politico noted that 17 of the flights it found occurred before the hurricanes made landfall in the United States. Price also took charter flights to events like the notoriously elite Aspen Ideals Festival and arrived nearly a full 24 hours before his scheduled appearance.

This isn’t the first time Price’s ethics have been questioned

The private flights would represent a sizable scandal on their own, but this isn’t the first time Price’s ethical compliance has been questioned.

After he was nominated to lead HHS, Price endured numerous reports about his investments in health care stocks while serving as a Congress member for Georgia’s Sixth District.

As Vox previously explained, Price bought and sold stock in more than 40 health care companies, stocks worth more than $300,000, as a Congress member. Despite appearances, most of those sales and purchases seemed to comply with House ethics rules.

However, there were a number of specific transactions and accompanying actions by Price that raised eyebrows:

  • In March 2016, according to CNN, Price bought up to $15,000 worth of stock in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device company that specializes in hip and knee implants. Two days later, he introduced legislation to delay a regulation that would have hurt the company’s business by changing how Medicare and Medicaid reimburse those procedures. Zimmer Biomet then donated to his campaign. (Price says he was not aware of the purchase, which was made by his broker.)
  • Price also bought shares in six pharmaceutical companies a week after a federal regulation was proposed that would lower reimbursements for doctors who prescribe expensive drugs for cancer and arthritis, according to Time magazine. The regulation was meant to help control health care costs by encouraging doctors to prescribe generic drugs and cheaper alternatives instead, and would have hurt pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines. The companies lobbied against the regulation, and Price sponsored legislation to block it. It was never enacted.
  • Price was able to take advantage of a special deal in another biotech firm, Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian company developing a multiple sclerosis drug, according to Kaiser Health News. Price was offered discounted shares for “sophisticated investors” in summer 2016 after making a smaller investment in the company in 2015. (A fellow member of Congress, Rep. Chris Collins, is on the company’s board; members of the Collins family own about 20 percent of the company.)

Though there was no definitive evidence that Price broke the law, Democrats sought to stop his confirmation amid the controversy. Price was confirmed 52 to 47 — with all Republican votes — in February.

These ethical scandals don’t sound like “draining the swamp”

Price, as a Congress member, very specifically criticized the private travel that he is now reported to have undertaken as HHS secretary. Bloomberg’s Steve Dennis pulled this clip:

“This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok,” Price said at the time.

There are also the icky optics of HHS Secretary Price spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on private flights while at the same time lobbying for a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare that would cut federal Medicaid spending by hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years, versus current law.

Aisling McDonough, who helped oversee Medicaid during the Obama administration, noted that $300,000 — the reported price tag for Price’s flights — is equal to the cost of covering more than 50 people through Medicaid.

But setting aside Price’s own history of claiming fiscal responsibility, such a dubious use of federal funds seems to contradict Trump’s supposed fixation on draining the Washington swamp — as have other actions by other Trump administration officials.

“Drain the swamp” was a core pledge from Trump as a candidate: a blanket promise to pull up the weeds of corruption and ethical compromise in the nation’s capital.

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump said in his inaugural speech. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.”

But the Trump administration has been plagued from the start, and from the top down, with ethical compromise. There are, of course, the allegations of Trump using the presidency to create profits for his own businesses. Then there are the scandals, like that of Price’s charter flights, that suggest at the least negligence of taxpayer dollars and, at worst, their willful mismanagement.

It seems hard to believe this is what Trump voters believed they would be getting. Private flights, on the federal dime, while the rest of us fly coach.

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