On Friday, September 29, Tom Price, Health and Human Services Secretary, resigned his position. Price had been under fire for his use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. Don J. Wright, who had been the acting assistant secretary for health and director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, was named acting secretary.
HHS Inspector General Probe
On September 22, it was announced that the Health and Human Services inspector general, Daniel R. Levinson, had initiated an investigation into Price’s use of chartered planes. The investigation involved more than 20 flights in recent months, all taken at taxpayer expense. Levinson, who was appointed by President George Bush, was contacted by House Democrats who believed the chartered flights violated federal law requiring officials in the executive branch to travel in the most economical way possible. It’s estimated that the flights cost taxpayers $400,000 while White House-approved travel on military planes cost more than $500,000.
The day before his resignation, Price announced he would reimburse the federal government $51,887.31 for his travel, only a fraction of what it cost the country. This was to cover his travel expenses but not those of his staff, who traveled with him. He also announced he would no longer take such flights due to the concerns raised about his use of taxpayer money. On Friday morning, President Trump told reporters he considered Price a “fine man” but that he didn’t care for the “optics” the scandal presented, stating that he would make a decision on what to do by the end of the day. It’s clear, however, that the president already had Price’s resignation when he made the statement.
This was not the first concern expressed by Democrats about Price. Earlier this year, there were concerns about private investments in healthcare companies that Price made while a member of the House. Those companies could have benefitted from bills he sponsored. At his confirmation hearing for secretary of HHS, Price was questioned about a stock purchase he made in 2016 in an Australian biomedical firm, which coincided with final negotiations on the 21st Century Cures bill. That bill helped accelerate clinical trials and drug approvals, some of which were manufactured by the company. Price has also come under fire from President Trump for the failure of Republicans to pass a healthcare replacement bill.
What it Means for HHS
Because Republicans failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prior to September 30, they must now create a law that will appeal to enough Democrats for it to pass. Until that time, HHS will need to implement the law as it is. Local groups who must assist consumers in enrolling are expressing frustration with the current administration, and Democrats claim the White House is sabotaging the law. These are issues that will need to be addressed by the department as the country heads into another open enrollment period in November.
There are also questions about who may replace Price as secretary. One top contender is Seema Verma, current administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), who has received bipartisan support in the past. Others include Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and David Shulkin, secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It is unclear whether Price will still reimburse the government the $52,000 he promised on Thursday as he did not mention it in his resignation letter. His letter stated that he decided to resign due to the distraction the travel scandal was having on the administration.