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Tom Price, Trump’s scandal-plagued HHS secretary, is stepping down

Controversy over private flights brought down Trump’s top health official.

Pool / 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.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the highest-ranking health official in the Trump administration, is stepping down after harsh criticism of a string of ethics scandals dating back to before his confirmation.

The scandal that sank Price was a series of Politico reports about his use of private jets, taking charter flights that cost tens of thousands of dollars instead of commercial flights that would cost hundreds, as was usual for his predecessors. The reports painted a picture of a top Trump official using taxpayer dollars to fly in luxury, visit his own properties, and even stop off for lunch in Nashville with his son.

Price’s bill eventually totaled nearly $1 million; he had offered to pay back $52,000 before finally stepping down.

The private flights doomed Price, who quickly lost favor with President Donald Trump. The White House announced late Friday that Price had offered his resignation and the president had accepted. Don Wright, currently a deputy assistant secretary at HHS, will assume Price’s post until Trump appoints a permanent replacement.

But the ethical questions dated back to Price’s nomination, and to another series of eyebrow-raising investments that he made in health care companies while in Congress.

His brief tenure included the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, an aborted Medicaid overhaul, the blatant sabotage of Obamacare enrollment, and other smaller changes to try to roll back the Obama administration’s legacy. Many or all of those initiatives seem likely to continue under Price’s successor.

As for Price, rather than face congressional and inspector general inquiries, he has chosen to resign. But his decline is yet another reminder that while Trump came into office promising to “drain the swamp,” his administration has been plagued at all levels by questions of impropriety and ethical compromise.

Tom Price’s charter flights, explained

The scandal started 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. Price 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 on its defense, 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 Ideas Festival and arrived nearly a full 24 hours before his scheduled appearance.

Price had a longer history of ethically dubious behavior

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. He 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.

Price was also 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.

But so far, the administration has brazened out most of those scandals. Price’s is the most high-profile head to roll over ethical questions in Trump’s Washington. It remains to be seen if it will be the last.

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