Price couldn’t get past charter flight scandal

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at a discussion on the opioid crisis, at the White House in Washington, Sept. 28, 2017. Following reports that he recently racked up at least $400,000 in private jet flights, Price said on Thursday that he would reimburse the government for the cost of the travel and stop taking private charter planes. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at a discussion on the opioid crisis, at the White House in Washington, Sept. 28, 2017. Following reports that he recently racked up at least $400,000 in private jet flights, Price said on Thursday that he would reimburse the government for the cost of the travel and stop taking private charter planes. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

A year ago, Tom Price was quietly preparing for a possible run for Georgia governor. Now, the Roswell Republican is hoping to salvage his reputation following his resignation as the nation's health secretary.

His ouster on Friday was a swift end to a political career that started with his election two decades ago to the Georgia Senate. And it shows the perils of getting on the bad side of President Donald Trump, who expressed outrage at Price’s travel on charter flights for government business.

Tom Price was confirmed as secretary of health and human services in February 2017. The Republican served as a congressman of District 6 in Georgia for 12 years before his confirmation. Price, a physician, has been a constant critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. As HHS secretary, he essentially was in charge pushing the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Before being elected as a U.S. congressman, he was a Georgia Senator and spent his first years in office focused on tax cuts and fiscally conservative politics. Politico recently published a series of reports detailing Price’s extensive use of charter flights to cost of $400,000 since May. President Donald Trump said he was “not happy” with Price because of the publicly funded travel and indicated firing him was not off the table. Price said he will reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the flights.

"I am not happy with him," the president said of Price on Wednesday.After lashing Price in what the New York Times reported as a two-hour trip to the woodshed Friday afternoon, Trump emerged from the White House and told reporters "He's a very fine man, but we're going to make a decision sometime tonight." Not long after, Price did the job himself.

“I regret that the recent events have created a distraction,” Price wrote in a letter to the President, citing the drive to lift medical regulations, reform healthcare and other priorities. “Success on these issues is more important than any one person. In order for you to move forward without further disruption, I am officially tendering my resignation as the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

The president’s office reacted with no thanks for Price’s service, merely noting that Trump “accepted.”

On the chopping block

Price and his supporters hoped he could weather the political typhoon. After all, Trump had publicly berated other Cabinet members who have managed to hang on. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has squirmed on the hot seat almost since he was appointed.

But Price seems to have earned a special place in Trump’s purgatory as reports piled up documenting his pricey trips around the world on the public’s dime.

He was more vulnerable on several fronts. The damaging stories undermined one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, to “drain the swamp.” And the timing of the investigations could hardly have been worse, as the White House laid groundwork for tax reform that opponents say would disproporionately benefit the rich.

It did not help that Price had been point man on one of the administration’s biggest failures — the effort to repeal Obamacare.

So when the stories hit, Price was already on shaky ground.

A review by Politico revealed that Price has tallied more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded trips to locales from Africa to Georgia’s coast.

Price’s repeated apologies did little to stop the bleeding. He drew howls of indignation from critics after he pledged to stop his taxpayer-funded travel on private jets and to reimburse the government for the cost of his seat on domestic trips using private or charter jets.

Price’s rocky road

Price’s tenure of less than eight months was rocky from the get-go.

The suburban Atlanta House seat he held for six terms was considered a safe GOP bet; instead, it became one of the premier political contests of the year, a $60 million race that Republicans carried thanks to tremendous reinforcements from national conservative groups.

Even before he was confirmed, Price was at the center of controversy. Senate Democrats grasped onto reports about the health stocks he traded while a member of some of Congress' marquee committees for writing health policy. His activity not only raised conflict-of-interest questions, they said, but possibly ran aground of a 2012 law barring lawmakers from insider trading.

Democrats sought to pump the brakes on Price's nomination altogether, but Price's Republican allies resisted. He was sworn in Feb. 10 following the Senate's most divisive vote ever over a health secretary nominee.

Still, his perch atop the mammoth U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seemed a perfect fit for Price, a third-generation physician who ran for office as a tax-hating fiscal conservative but made health care policy his calling card.

While a member of the House, he offered one of the GOP's only detailed replacement plans for the Affordable Care Act, which earned him respect among conservatives as an expert on the topic.

His longtime friendship with Speaker Paul Ryan — both are avowed policy geeks — paired with his status as a fiscal hard-liner was seen as the golden combination that was going to help him get Obamacare replacement legislation through the oft-divided House GOP.

Price was front and center this spring as the White House rolled out its strategy for unwinding President Barack Obama's signature policy achievement. But he was eventually supplanted as the public face of the effort by Vice President Mike Pence and budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who had closer ties to conservatives.

As House leaders were frantically preparing for a close vote on the party's first replacement bill in March, Price was photographed at a nearby bar on Capitol Hill. In hindsight, friends say, he may have been hobbled by limited experience in the Senate, where Republican defections defeated the measure.

“Not having worked with the Senate before, it’s probably a little bit difficult for him,” said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who served with Price both on Capitol Hill and in the Georgia Legislature. “Mainly his connections were in the House and not in the Senate, but they did get it through the House.”

The lion’s share of Price’s work to undo the Affordable Care Act has been hidden from public view, much of it through leveraging his obscure regulatory powers as health secretary to loosen Obamacare’s restrictions.

He quickly cracked the door open for adding work requirements to Medicaid, long a priority of conservatives. He shortened the enrollment period for Obamacare and drastically cut back on its advertising budget, a move critics said was designed to let the law wither.

And last month, his department signaled it would test changes to Medicare that Price had long advocated for as a congressman: allowing doctors to contract directly with beneficiaries, a move that critics say could saddle patients with higher costs.

Some of Price’s allies say that outrage over Price’s travel is directly connected to liberals’ fears of his power over health policy.

“Now that Congress’s Obamacare repeal is on ice, the Left knows that any modifications to the law will be done directly through HHS,” tweeted Tony Perkins, the president of the socially conservative lobby group the Family Research Council.

“This was never about Secretary Price’s ethics,” he added, “it’s about trying to discredit one of the most effective social conservatives in Washington.”

Travel woes

None of Price’s headaches over stocks or health care, though, have diminished his standing with the public or the president more than news of his recent trips at taxpayers’ expense.

Some were on military aircraft. Other journeys were to cities such as Philadelphia, with frequent and far cheaper commercial flights from Washington, or to places where Price had family or owned property, raising questions about whether all his travels were for business purposes.

One of the trips reported by Politico was in August to St. Simons Island, where Price and his wife, Betty, own land. He arrived at the posh locale a day and a half before he was scheduled to speak at an annual Medical Association of Georgia conference.

Donald Palmisano, the head of the Medical Association of Georgia, said Price has taught a class at the Georgia Physicians Leadership Academy for nine years. The event this year was held at the swanky King and Prince Resort on St. Simons Island, and his course was “Communication Skills for Physician Leaders.”

After Trump expressed his anger at the trips, Price offered Thursday to reimburse taxpayers for about $52,000. It was unclear how Price arrived at that number, but in a Fox News interview that day he defended his move, calling his repayment “unprecedented” and saying the trips were “within budget.”

“All of these trips were official business,” Price said. “All of them were approved by the normal processes that every other administration has gone through prior to the trip, not after. But we’ve heard the concerns.”

The HHS inspector general announced it was reviewing Price’s trips, as was the Republican-led House Oversight Committee. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent Trump a letter demanding an explanation on Price’s trips.

Price's past critiques about private travel shouldered by the taxpayers have done him no favors. In a 2009 interview with CNBC, he unloaded on House Democrats who proposed spending $550 million on eight passenger jets. He regularly blasted then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for flights on military aircraft. A tweet of his asserting that "Congress doesn't need to have private jets" likewise hasn't aged well.

Audrey Haynes, the head of the University of Georgia’s applied politics program, said she was stunned that Price made what seems like a “rookie mistake.”

“I am very surprised someone on his team didn’t alert him to the perception,” Haynes said. “This is the cagey politician who questioned wasted money from prior administrations, criticized Nancy Pelosi quite colorfully for jetting across America in her fancy jet plane on the public’s dime.”

Some House liberals have called on Price to resign. Most of his former colleagues in Georgia's congressional delegation have kept their distance.

“The optics of it are not good — I think he’ll admit it,” Westmoreland said. “But let’s find out why it happened.”

Impact on health care

As news of his resignation broke, Democrats were quick to say it was more than deserved: Not just because of the scandal, but because of the steps Price had taken to weaken Obamacare. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to offer a statement but didn’t even mention the flights.

“Secretary Price should never have been in this role in the first place,” she wrote. “The American people deserve a Secretary of Health and Human Services who believes in health care for all Americans.” She called for a new secretary who would “stop this Administration’s sabotage of hard-working Americans’ health care.”

Open enrollment for the Obamacare exchanges starts in Georgia and across the nation on Nov. 1, and it will be dramatically different for customers this year because of changes Price has made. The enrollment period will cut off several weeks earlier, there will be far less publicity for it, and much less funding for “navigators” who help patients understand it.

It appears unlikely the Trump administration will appoint someone with a fundamentally different viewpoint than Price. But the next Secretary won’t be from Georgia. That will matter here.

In interviews for months about Georgia health care policy, nearly every discussion has included a mention of Price. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed the legislative session on health care telling the AJC, “What I’m hoping is that this congress under Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price will allow the states to design their own health care systems.” Members of a committee led by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle repeatedly said Georgia was in a great position to design such programs to benefit Georgia because Price was in charge of approving them.

Several top elected officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Cagle, did not reply this weekend to requests for comment on the resignation.

Kelly McCutchen, president of the free-market Georgia Public Policy Foundation, has been pushing hard for the state to apply for “waivers” to Obamacare and Medicaid, where states design programs to re-tool some of the money in ways state leaders think would better fit the state.

Now that the Obamacare repeal effort is stalled, a waiver application might have got under way here. But now Price is gone.

“Tom Price is a champion for patient-centered reforms, so the loss of his knowledge and leadership is huge blow,” McCutchen said Saturday. “That certainly doesn’t mean Georgia shouldn’t pursue a federal waiver, but it could make the job harder.

Jack Kingston, a longtime friend and former congressional colleague of Price, echoed McCutchen’s sentiments. “I think Georgia would have under Dr. Price a lot more influence than they would over some nominee who doesn’t know our hospitals and our medical people and our health care officials and our elected officials,” he said, just in general.

State Senator Renee Unterman of Buford, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, agreed Price’s departure was a loss for Georgia.

“He knows our system so well and he knows what’s going on in Georgia,” she said.

“But I think if you have a proposal to (the administration) that is legitimate and if it works for the state, I think because it switched over to Republican control it would be likely to be successful.” Unterman added.

“No matter what state the next secretary comes from, “I think under Republicans you get a better shake at the deal.”