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.
The travel by corporate-style jet comes at a time when other members of the Trump administration are under fire for travel expenditures, and breaks with the practices of Obama-era secretaries Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, who flew commercially while in the continental United States.
Price, a frequent critic of federal spending who has been developing a plan for departmentwide cost savings, declined to comment.
HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson saying only 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.
“As part of the HHS mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of the American people, Secretary Price travels on occasion outside Washington to meet face to face with the American people to hear their thoughts and concerns firsthand,” an HHS spokesperson said, adding, “When commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel.”
Price’s spokespeople declined to comment on why he considered commercial travel to be unfeasible. On one leg of the trip — a sprint from Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles — there was a commercial flight that departed at roughly the same time: Price’s charter left Dulles at 8:27 a.m., and a United Airlines flight departed for Philadelphia at 8:22 a.m., according to airport records.
Sample round-trip fares for the United flight ranged from $447 to $725 per person on United.com, though the price would have been lower if booked in advance or if Price’s party received government discounts. Similarly priced commercial flights also left from Reagan National Airport and Baltimore Washington International. By contrast, the cost of chartering the plane was roughly $25,000, according to Ultimate Jet Charters, which owns the Embraer 135LR twin jet that ferried Price and about 10 other people to the clinic event.
In addition, Amtrak ran four trains starting at 7 a.m. that left Washington’s Union Station and arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station no later than 9:58 a.m. The least-expensive ticket, on the 7:25 a.m. train, costs $72 when booked in advance. It is just a 125-mile drive from HHS headquarters in downtown Washington to the Mirmont Treatment Center outside of Philadelphia, where Price spoke. Google Maps estimates the drive as about 2½ hours. A one-way trip was estimated by travel planners to be about $30 in gasoline per SUV plus no more than $16 in tolls.
An HHS spokesperson declined to answer questions on how many private charter flights Price has taken since being confirmed as secretary on Feb. 10, but wrote in an emailed response, “Official travel by the secretary is done in complete accordance with Federal Travel Regulations.”
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.
“I can understand why the secretary might have to use a charter flight to get to a hurricane-devastated region, but Philadelphia is not one of those regions this year,” said Walter Shaub, who was director of the United States Office of Government Ethics until July. “I find it hard to believe he couldn’t find a suitable commercial flight to Philadelphia.”
“This wasteful conduct reflects disdain for the ethical principle of treating public service as a public trust,” said Shaub, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama. “Public office isn’t supposed to come with frivolous perks at taxpayer expense.”
Shaub said that the trips violate the “spirit” of the Federal Travel Regulations, citing the express guidance contained in the regulations that “taxpayers should pay no more than necessary for your transportation.”
Members of the Trump administration have come under scrutiny for excessive use of government travel resources. The president and his family have rung up travel expenses at a faster rate than previous presidential families. The inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a probe into Administrator Scott Pruitt’s frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma. The Treasury Department’s inspector general is looking into Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s use of a government jet on a trip to Fort Knox, Kentucky, that involved viewing the solar eclipse. Most recently, ABC News reported that Mnuchin had requested a government plane to take him on his overseas honeymoon. The request was withdrawn on the grounds that it was unnecessary.
Price is an orthopedic surgeon who served in the U.S. House for 12 years representing a district in suburban Atlanta. After President Donald Trump nominated him to be HHS secretary in January, Price came under fire from Democrats and ethics watchdogs for having made stock trades in health-care companies while serving on a House panel overseeing Obamacare and other health issues.
He has also positioned himself as a champion of fiscal efficiency, backing major spending reductions to agencies he oversees and legislation that would cull hundreds of billions of dollars from health entitlement programs. This month, Price had been scheduled to submit a department reform plan to the White House that is expected to propose new spending and staffing cuts. He also backed a nearly $6 billion proposed cut to the National Institutes of Health in March, and an overall 18 percent spending cut to HHS included in Trump’s first budget proposal.
“Tough choices had to be made to identify and reduce spending within the department,” Price said in a statement to Congress about his budget request. “Our goal is to … [try] to decrease the areas where there are either duplications, redundancies or waste … and get a larger return for the investment of the American taxpayer.”
Price’s travel itinerary last week included five charter flights that charter operators estimated would cost at least $60,000. The itinerary, according to airport records and sources with knowledge of Price’s travels, began on Wednesday, Sept. 13 (arrows do not represent actual flight paths):
• Price and staff took a private charter that left Dulles that Wednesday at 2:26 p.m. and arrived in Waterville, Maine, at 3:37 p.m., where he then traveled to the Point Lookout resort and spent the night.
• On Thursday, Sept. 14, Price held a fireside chat with the CEO of athenahealth at the Point Lookout resort. He then took a private jet that departed Waterville, Maine, at 11:41 a.m. and arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at 12:09 p.m. for a scheduled visit to nearby Goodwin Community Health Center.
• Later on Thursday, Price made an announcement about grants for fighting the opioid epidemic, after which he took a private jet that left Portsmouth at 2:34 p.m. and arrived at Washington Dulles at 3:45 p.m.
• On Sept. 15, Price, accompanied by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, left Dulles aboard a charter at 8:27 a.m. and touched down at Philadelphia International Airport at 9:01 a.m. for a scheduled visit to Mirmont Treatment Center, a local addiction treatment facility.
• Also on Sept. 15, Price, Conway and other staff departed Philadelphia aboard a charter plane at 12:39 p.m. and touched down at Dulles at 1:19 p.m., where the plane was met on the tarmac by two SUVs and a police escort.
The round trip to the Philadelphia airport, which is about 15 miles from Mirmont Treatment Center, where Price and Conway met with staff and patients — cost about $25,000, an official with the charter agency told POLITICO.
Eddie Moneypenny of Ultimate Jetcharters, who confirmed that his company’s 30-seat jet was used for a Dulles-Philadelphia roundtrip last week, said he wasn’t aware that the trip was for a government official and the charter had been booked through a third party.
Other charter services confirmed that charter flights between Washington and Philadelphia run tens of thousands of dollars when retaining the same plane.
“I’ve been doing this for seven years,” said Jake Sheeley of EvoJets, another charter service. “I’ve never seen a flight like this for less than $20,000.” Sheeley also estimated that an itinerary modeled on Price’s three-flight trip between Washington, Maine and New Hampshire would cost about $40,000.
Several former HHS staffers who had close knowledge of the travel plans of former HHS secretaries Burwell and Sebelius could not recall booking a charter flight for short-haul travel.
Staff for Burwell and Sebelius said booking even a single charter flight was, in the words of one, a “non-starter” within the department. For example, for last year’s Obamacare enrollment kick-off, HHS staff had planned a multi-city tour for Burwell to urge Americans to sign up for coverage. The effort, which would have required charter aircraft, was ultimately scrapped because of its estimated $60,000 cost.
“We were worried about the optics and the cost to taxpayers,” said one former staffer involved in the planning.
In her more than five years as a Cabinet secretary, Sebelius says she took a charter flight only to get to remote areas in Alaska, which she and staff said were otherwise inaccessible.
“The basic rules that our scheduling team worked under were, you flew commercial and you flew economy,” she said in an interview. “That’s just what they did.”
Tracking Price’s travel and meetings has been much more difficult than tracking those of his predecessors. His office only recently began informing reporters of trips ahead of time, and have declined to post most of his remarks and speeches to the HHS website despite his frequent speaking engagements.
Nonetheless, he’s spent much of his tenure on the road. POLITICO identified at least 24 separate flights that Price has taken to conduct HHS business in the past four months alone. Those flights don’t include Price’s weekend trips home to Georgia. An HHS spokesperson said, “Secretary Price pays for personal travel out of his own pocket.”
One of those unannounced trips was to last week’s conference hosted by athenahealth, the health information company, at the Point Lookout resort in Maine. Price held a wideranging fireside chat with athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush, the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and first cousin of former President George W. Bush.
The HHS secretary apparently used his remarks to tweak the government’s role as would-be reformers.
“Don’t assume the federal government is gonna do the right thing in health care,” Price said, according to one account of his talk.
Powered by WPeMatico