In a sharp departure from his predecessors, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last week took private jets on five separate flights for official business, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars more than commercial travel.
The secretary’s five flights, which were scheduled between Sept. 13 and Sept. 15, took him to a resort in Maine where he participated in a Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO, and to community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to internal HHS documents.
A private jet to a resort to chat with a pharma CEO sounds like what you might expect from a man who bought stock in a medical company, then authored a bill to boost its value.
But Price’s misuse of a public funds to hire a private plane is particularly egregious, because that Tom Price, is the same Tom Price who railed against government use of private planes.
“I think we made it halfway where we ought to, and that is we’ve cut it from eight to four jets. Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets. This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amuck in Congress right now … “
When Price was asked about the need for private planes, even for use by the Secretary of Defense in a war zone, he argued there was no need. But that, apparently, wasn’t as vital as ferrying Price to a resort.
Price isn’t flying to remote areas. He’s not dashing between two nations to broker a peace deal, or—since Price is a doctor—winging in to assist people in a disaster.
HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights, or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson only saying that Price sometimes charters planes when commercial flights aren’t feasible. All three organizations that hosted Price last week — the Massachusetts-based health IT firm athenahealth, Goodwin Community Health Center in New Hampshire and the Mirmont Treatment Center in Pennsylvania — told POLITICO they did not pay for his flights or other travel costs.
An extensive search has revealed that Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania are all visited by commercial airlines. In fact, Price even took a charter flight when there was a commercial flight from and to the same destination leaving within five minutes of his flight’s departure.
In fact, Price chartered a jet to travel just 132 miles. Along a route he not only could have taken a commercial flight, but was also serviced by train and represented only couple of hours by car.
Current and former staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say Price has been taking private jets to travel domestically for months.
Ethics experts say the use of private charters by government officials, while legal, is highly dubious and in most cases a misuse of taxpayer funding.
It was evident before he took the helm at HHS that ethics were a subject of little interest to Price. In an administration where travel and security budgets are routinely being swamped, he likely expected no one would notice his antics.