Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has taken at least 24 flights on private charter planes at taxpayers’ expense since early May, according to people with knowledge of his travel plans and a review of HHS documents. The frequency of the trips underscores how private travel has become the norm — rather than the exception — for the Georgia Republican during his tenure atop the federal health agency, which began in February. The cost of the trips identified by POLITICO exceeds $ 300,000, according to a review of federal contracts and similar trip itineraries. Story Continued Below Price’s use of private jets represents a sharp departure from his two immediate predecessors, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, who flew commercially in the continental United States. HHS officials have said Price uses private jets only when commercial travel is not feasible. But many of the flights are between large cities with frequent, low-cost airline traffic, such as a trip from Washington to Nashville that the secretary took on June 6 to make a morning event at a medication distributor and an afternoon speech. There are four regular nonstop flights that leave Washington-area airports between 6:59 a.m. and 8:50 a.m. and arrive in Nashville by 9:46 a.m. CT. Sample round-trip fares for those flights were as low as $ 202, when booked in advance on Orbitz.com. Price’s charter, according to HHS’s contract with Classic Air Charter, cost $ 17,760. HHS spokespeople did not respond to questions about specific aspects of Price’s travels, including how many charter trips he has taken. Charmaine Yoest, the agency’s top spokesperson, said Price’s travel for official business "comes from the HHS budget.” In a statement, Yoest said, "“The Secretary has taken commercial flights for official business after his confirmation. He has used charter aircraft for official business in order to accommodate his demanding schedule. The week of September 13 was one of those times, as the Secretary was directing the recovery effort for Irma, which had just devastated Florida, while simultaneously directing the ongoing recovery for Hurricane Harvey . . . Some believe the HHS Secretary should be Washington-focused. Dr. Price is focused on hearing from Americans across the country.” Nonetheless, POLITICO identified at least 17 charter flights that took place before the first storm — Hurricane Harvey — hit in late August, and included flights that did not appear to be for urgent HHS public health priorities. For example, Price took a Learjet-60 from San Diego to the Aspen Ideas Festival — a glamorous conference at the Colorado resort town — that arrived at 3:33 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, June 24, nearly 19 hours before his scheduled panel. That flight likely cost more than $ 7,100, according to one charter jet agency estimate. “If you’re going to a conference, you have some [advance] flexibility to book travel” and shouldn’t need last-minute charters, said Walter Shaub, who was the Obama-appointed director of the United States Office of Government Ethics until July. “This shows a complete disregard for the expense to the taxpayer.” Since being confirmed in early February, Price has developed a reputation inside the agency for flying on private charters rather than taking other means of transportation, people inside and outside of the Trump administration said. After a POLITICO investigation identified five private flights that Price took up and down the East Coast last week, Price took a charter jet to Oklahoma on Tuesday of this week, Sept. 19, where he met with Native American tribes and toured health care facilities by car — although HHS initially explored flying him by charter around the state, two people with knowledge of Price’s travels said. “There was a push from political [staff] at HHS to fly him and not drive him to these small communities,” said one of the people. Price’s staff cut his press conference in Oklahoma short on Wednesday when reporters raised questions about his use of taxpayer funds, an attendee said. Price’s frequent trips around the country have rankled staff inside the White House, with a senior official saying many trips aren’t related to priorities like Obamacare repeal and other items on the president’s agenda. While Price has flown to Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania since last Wednesday, President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans have been frantically rallying support to pass an Obamacare repeal bill by Sept. 30. After that date, the GOP will need 60 Senate votes, not 50, to overturn the 2010 health law. "No one is quite sure what [Price] is doing,” a senior White House official said. “You look at this week, we're doing a last final push trying to get this over the finish line, and he's nowhere to be found." Many of Price’s trips have centered on making announcements related to the use of opioids and holding listening sessions about the epidemic, which Trump labeled a national emergency and continues contribute to rising death rates from drug abuse. Price has labeled fighting the opioid epidemic one of his top priorities. But rather than fly commercially to these events, which are scheduled well in advance, Price tends to rent corporate-style jets. Sometimes, he ferries big-name guests along with him. In May, Price and Kellyanne Conway — the White House counselor and former Trump campaign manager who traveled with Price to Philadelphia last week to tour an addiction treatment center — made stops in four different states in the span of two days. The pair traveled to Lansing, Michigan and Charleston, West Virginia for opioid-related meetings in the morning and early afternoon on May 9. That happened to be the same day Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey. On May 10, she and Price were in Augusta, Maine and Concord, New Hampshire, for more opioid-related events. Price again made an opioid-related visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee on July 6 where he took a private plane, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. According to records, HHS signed a $ 14,570 charter plane contract for DC to Tennessee travel with a July 6 effective date. In June, Price spoke at a physicians association conference in San Diego, where he vowed to wring out wasteful spending in the government’s health care programs. Getting “value” for spending “is incredibly important,” he said. Price took a private plane to get the meeting, which was one stop on a five-state sprint of charter travel that cost $ 50,420. Josh Dawsey and Josh Gerstein contributed reporting.
Utne Altwire: healthcare