Tom Price resigns as health secretary after tumultuous eight months

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price attends an opioid roundtable discussion in Washington on Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price attends an opioid roundtable discussion in Washington on Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Health Secretary Tom Price resigned from his Cabinet post on Friday, the White House said, after racking up at least $1 million in travel on private and military jets, a string of taxpayer-funded expenses that drew bipartisan condemnation.

The former Roswell orthopedic surgeon had lost support from President Donald Trump, who said Wednesday that he was "not happy" with his health secretary despite Price's pledge to pay back taxpayers for part of the bill and to stop flying on chartered jets.

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.

The White House said Don Wright, a top deputy at the department, would serve as acting secretary of Health and Human Services until a new secretary can be confirmed by the Senate.

Price’s departure came after the news outlet Politico reported in a series of stories that the health chief had taken more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded trips on private planes to locales from Africa to Georgia’s St. Simons Island.

Other journeys were to cities 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.

He 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 on “Special Report with Bret Baier.” “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.”

It was a swift fall for Price, a six-term congressman who had represented the north Atlanta suburbs who long said running the Health and Human Services Department was his dream job. A third-generation doctor, Price built his political career around health care policy.

Price held the job for less than eight months, following a contentious and drawn-out Senate confirmation process during which Democrats alleged Price had toed ethical lines with his health stock trades given his powerful position on Capitol Hill.

He was initially sold as the face of Trump's core campaign pledge to scrap the Affordable Care Act. Eventually, though, other senior officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and budget chief Mick Mulvaney took on more prominent public roles as Republicans worked to replace the 2010 law. Price instead worked behind the scenes to loosen some of Obamacare's restrictions.

Price becomes the first Cabinet member to exit the Trump administration since the president was sworn into office in January.

Names for potential replacements began swirling before his ouster. Axios reported that Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Medicare administrator Seema Verma were among the figures being floated as potential successors.