US President Donald Trump’s Health Secretary has resigned after his costly travel triggered investigations that overshadowed the administration’s agenda and angered his boss.
Tom Price’s regrets and partial repayment could not save his job.
The Health and Human Services Secretary became the first member of the President’s Cabinet to be pushed out in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted.
A former GOP congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, Mr Price served just eight months.
Publicly, Mr Trump had said he was “not happy” with Mr Price for repeatedly using private charter aircraft for official trips on the taxpayer’s dime, when cheaper commercial flights would have done in many cases.
Privately, Mr Trump has been telling associates in recent days that his health chief had become a distraction and was overshadowing his tax overhaul agenda and undermining his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, according to three people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The flap prompted scrutiny of other Cabinet members’ travel, as the House Oversight and Government Reform committee launched a governmentwide investigation of top political appointees. Other department heads have been scrambling to explain their own travel.
Mr Price’s repayment of $65,000 for his own travel costs and his public expression of regrets did not placate the White House. The total travel cost, including the secretary’s entourage, was unclear. It could amount to several hundred thousand dollars.
Price took back seat to Pence
An orthopaedic surgeon-turned-politician, Mr Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative.
When Mr Price joined the administration, Mr Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new
healthcare bill to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
But Mr Price became more of a supporting player in the GOP’s futile healthcare campaign, while Vice-President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly in dealing with the Senate.
The perception of Mr Price jetting around while GOP lawmakers laboured to repeal “Obamacare” — including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe — raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Mr Price flew on military aircraft overseas.
A Pence protege, Seema Verma, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mr Price. Ms Verma already leads the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs health insurance programs that cover more than 130 million Americans.
Another possible HHS candidate: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who won some bipartisan support in his confirmation and is well known in policy, government and industry circles.
Mr Trump named Don J Wright, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, to serve as acting secretary.
Mr Price, 62, was seen in Congress as a foe of wasteful spending. As HHS secretary, he led a $1 trillion department whose future is the key to managing mounting federal budgetary deficits.
As secretary, Mr Price criticised the Medicaid health program for low-income people, saying it did not deliver results commensurate with the hundreds of billions of dollars taxpayers spend on it. As a congressman, he favoured Medicare privatisation.
One flight was just 217 kilometres
But Mr Price’s image as a budget hawk took a hit when reports of his official travel started bubbling up. Mr Price used private charter flights on 10 trips with multiple segments, when in many cases cheaper commercial flights were available.
His charter travel was first reported by the news site Politico.
On a trip in June to Nashville, Tennessee, Mr Price also had lunch with his son, who lives in that city, according to Politico. Another trip was from Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 217 kilometres.
The reports triggered a review by the HHS inspector general’s office, which is looking into whether Mr Price’s travel violated federal travel regulations. Those rules generally require officials to minimise costs.
The controversy over Mr Price was a catalyst for Congress launching a bipartisan probe of travel by political appointees across the administration.
The House oversight committee has requested travel records from the White House and 24 federal departments and agencies.
Mr Trump on Friday called Mr Price a “very fine person,” but added, “I certainly don’t like the optics.”