Tom Price blasted government use of private jets, now regularly uses them for domestic travel

Despite slashing HHS budgets in the name of fiscal responsibility, the secretary seems willing to make an exception for himself.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks at the Mirmont Treatment Center Friday September 15, 2017, in Media, Pennsylvania. Price and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway toured the center for drug and alcohol addiction recovery and discussed the opioid crisis. (Credit: AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks at the Mirmont Treatment Center Friday September 15, 2017, in Media, Pennsylvania. Price and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway toured the center for drug and alcohol addiction recovery and discussed the opioid crisis. (Credit: AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price chartered a private jet at a cost of “tens of thousands of dollars” for official business on five separate occasions recently, Politico reported on Wednesday. The flights took place over a span of three days, between September 13 and 15, and were used to ferry the HHS head to and from a resort in Maine, where Price held a “Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO”, and to “community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania,” according to official documents.

According to Politico, Massachusetts-based health IT firm athenahealth, Goodwin Community Health Center in New Hampshire, and the Mirmont Treatment Center in Pennsylvania all told the outlet that they did not finance the flights themselves or pay for any related travel costs. Though Price declined to comment, HHS spokespersons stated that the secretary “travels on occasion outside Washington to meet face to face with the American people to hear their thoughts and concerns firsthand”, adding that “when commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel.”

Price’s actions, however, contradict his own previous comments on the issue. In 2009, Price called the use of private jets by members of Congress “fiscal irresponsibility run amok” and criticized a colleague who had argued they were necessary for department heads like the secretary of Defense.

“I think we’ve made it halfway to where we ought to [be], and that is we’ve cut [the number] from eight to four jets — now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets,” Price said in a CNBC interview at the time, discussing a defense appropriations bill which had originally set aside $550 million for eight new elite aircraft. “This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now…they’ve got 24 [planes] right now. No need to add four more, my goodness gracious — especially in this time of fiscal crisis that we have.”

Price also tweeted his displeasure at the time, referencing a video clip of the CNBC interview and writing, “Congress doesn’t need to have private jets.”

According to current and former HHS staffers who spoke with Politico on Wednesday, Price has been using private jets to “travel domestically” as secretary for months now. Although legal, former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub told the outlet that Price’s actions were, at best, “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,” Shaub said. “I find it hard to believe he couldn’t find a suitable commercial flight to Philadelphia.”

HHS spokespersons did not clarify why Price had felt it necessary to charter private flights for himself when commercial flights had been available, as Politico pointed out, stating only that “official travel by the secretary is done in complete accordance with Federal Travel Regulations.”

The Politico report comes as Price himself continues to lobby for deep cuts within the HHS budget. In March, speaking with Appropriations Committee members, he argued that “tough choices had to be made to identify and reduce spending within the Department” and that slashing the budget “makes good on the President’s promise to put American families first.” Price told committee members that, despite their concerns that his cuts would undermine the ACA, “Nobody [was] interested in sabotaging the system.”

In August, Price made good on his word, drastically cutting the Affordable Care Act’s advertising budget from $100 million to $10 million and reducing the budget for consumer “navigators”, who operate on “grant”-based funding, from $62.5 million $36.8 million, according to STAT News.

“We believe we are adequately funding and rewarding those that have been successful,” an HHS official told the Washington Examiner at the time.

According to CNN, “Advertising and outreach…are seen as critical to maintaining and boosting Obamacare enrollment. …In particular, it helps attract young and healthy consumers who may not feel they need coverage. The sick, who are eager to secure insurance, are more likely to know where to sign up.”


UPDATE: In a follow-up statement to The Hill on Wednesday, HHS spokespersons defended Price’s decision to use private jets for business travel, claiming that Price was busy “managing public health and human services recovery and preparation efforts for three major hurricanes.” The full statement reads as follows:

With an incredibly demanding schedule full of 13+ hour days, every effort is being made to maximize Secretary Price’s ability to travel outside Washington to meet with the American people and carry out HHS’s mission. Secretary Price is currently managing public health and human services recovery and preparation efforts for three major hurricanes.

Secretary Price leads a $1.2 trillion agency — the largest agency in government. The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible. The President has made it clear his Administration will move power out of Washington and return it to the American people. Secretary Price will continue meeting with the American people outside of the Beltway to hear their concerns and ensure HHS makes decisions that best provide for their needs.

In response to the growing controversy on Wednesday, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) issued a letter to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson in which he requested that Levinson respond to a list of questions about Price’s use of the private jets, how much it had cost taxpayers, and records of HHS efforts to find more cost-effective travel options. Cicilline also asked that the HHS inspector general’s office clarify the department’s policy on “chartering private planes for official business in non-emergency situations”, Price’s justification for chartering the flights, and whether Price intended to reimburse taxpayers for the costs.

“As representatives of our constituents, our duty is to ensure that their tax dollars are being utilized in the most efficient and responsible manner in order to continue to deliver the critical services entrusted to federal agencies,” Cicilline wrote. “As part of Congress’ oversight role, it is our responsibility to ensure waste, fraud, and abuse of federal tax dollars is scrutinized and corrected when need be.”