HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned Friday in the face of multiple federal inquiries and growing criticism of his use of private and government planes for travel, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 million since May.
The White House said the former seven-term Georgia congressman, 63, offered his resignation earlier in the day and that President Donald Trump had accepted it.
Price becomes the first Trump administration Cabinet secretary to step down. The White House said Trump asked Deputy Assistant Health Secretary Don Wright to serve as acting secretary of the agency, which has an annual budget $1.15 trillion and includes the Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as the FDA, NIH and CDC.
As late as Thursday, Price said he believed he had the president’s support. But the tumult surrounding his travel became another distraction for an administration already reeling from the defeat of repeated Senate efforts to repeal Obamacare and facing criticism for its hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
In his resignation letter, Price expressed regret that "recent events" distracted from efforts to overhaul the health care system, reduce regulatory burdens and improve global health. "In order for you to move forward without further disruption, I am officially tendering my resignation as the Secretary of Health and Human Services effective 11:59 PM on Friday," Price wrote.
Senate Democrats quickly served notice they were preparing for a potential confirmation fight over Price's successor, saying the next HHS secretary must not undermine Obamacare. Under Price, the department cut the law’s enrollment period in half and massively slashed advertising and outreach for the upcoming enrollment period starting in November.
“The mission of the Health and Human Services secretary should be to support Americans’ health care, not take it away,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “The next HHS secretary must follow the law when it comes to the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to sabotage it.”
"Tom Price’s replacement needs to be focused on implementing the law as written by Congress and keeping the president’s promise to bring down the high cost of prescription drugs,” Senate Finance ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon said in a statement.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a close ally, praised Price as a dedicated public servant who fought for others. "His vision and hard work were vital to the House’s success passing our health care legislation," Ryan said in a statement.
POLITICO revealed in a series of articles that Price flew at least 26 times on private aircraft at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a sharp break with his predecessors’ practice. Many of Price’s flights were between major cities that offered inexpensive alternatives on commercial airlines, including Nashville, Philadelphia and San Diego.
On some of those trips, Price, an orthopedic surgeon, mixed official business with personal affairs. He took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a medical conference he and his wife have long attended. In June, HHS chartered a private jet to fly Price to Nashville, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary, spoke to a local health summit organized by a friend and had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.
Price also used military aircraft for multi-national trips to Africa, Europe and Asia, at a cost of more than $500,000 to taxpayers. The White House said it had approved those trips but not the private jets within the United States.
Price tried to defuse the controversy by promising on Thursday to reimburse the government for the approximately $52,000 cost of his own seat on his domestic trips. But that wasn’t enough to tamp down the scandal, which had infuriated President Donald Trump and prompted a bipartisan inquiry from the House Oversight Committee and separate calls for accountability from lawmakers including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. The inspector general of Price’s own agency is reviewing if Price complied with federal travel regulations.
The issue of Cabinet members' travel was also extending beyond Price: POLITICO reported Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides took several flights on private or military aircraft, including a $12,000 charter plane to take him to events in his hometown in Montana and private flights in the Caribbean. Zinke dismissed the furor as a “little B.S.” during a Friday appearance at the Heritage Foundation.
Price’s wife, Betty, accompanied him on the military flights, while other members of the secretary’s delegation flew commercially to Europe.
HHS spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest said Price reimbursed the agency for his wife’s travel, but declined to elaborate.
White House officials have groused about Price’s frequent travels, with one senior White House official saying the HHS secretary was “nowhere to be found” as they mounted a last-ditch unsuccessful push to repeal Obamacare.
Congressional Democrats attacked Price for advocating spending cuts to the health agencies he oversaw and health care programs while spending taxpayer dollars on private jets. “There could not be a clearer statement of the Trump administration’s priorities,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said. Key Democrats overseeing health issues in Congress had formally requested that HHS's inspector general review Price's travel practices.
In June, Price defended a proposed fiscal 2018 budget for HHS that included a $663,000 cut to the agency’s $4.9 million annual spending on travel, or roughly 15 percent. “The budgeting process is an exercise in reforming our federal programs to make sure they actually work — so they do their job and use tax dollars wisely,” Price told the Senate Finance Committee on June 8.
Ethical questions dogged Price even before questions about his travel arose. During his Senate confirmation hearing to helm HHS, Price faced pointed questions about his personal investments in health care companies during his time in Congress. Democrats called on government ethics officials to investigate Price’s health care stock trades, following reports that he got a sweetheart deal from a biotech company and invested in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device-maker, just days before writing legislation that would have eased regulations on the sector.
The Senate confirmed Price by a 52-47 margin in February after he maintained full Republican support.
Price carved out a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative during his decade-plus tenure in the House of Representatives. He generally supported reducing government spending on health care while shifting more of the financial burden onto individuals. Like most conservatives, he's supported privatizing Medicare so that seniors would receive fixed dollar amounts to buy coverage and limiting federal Medicaid spending to give states a lump sum, or block grant, and more control over how they could use it.