Health Secretary Tom Price resigned from his Cabinet post 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.
The timing of the revelations was inopportune. The Trump administration is just revving up plans to concentrate on a tax overhaul and is battling critics’ accusations that its goals are fiscally irresponsible and a giveaway to the rich. Expensive taxpayer-funded travel perks didn’t help.
The White House said Don Wright, a top deputy at the Department of Health and Human Services, would serve as acting secretary until the Senate can confirm a new leader for the agency.
Former colleagues in Georgia and Washington lamented Price’s departure or gravely wished him gone, depending on their perspective.
“I think it was a tough break,” said Jack Kingston, who served with Price in the U.S. House of Representatives and called him a friend of 20 years.
“I think Washington does have a double standard,” Kingston said, noting that other officials in administrations of both parties had stumbled taking private or military flights. “He stepped forward to pay for it and try to make it right. But I think it’s very typical of Tom to kind of take a hit for the team. He did not want to be a distraction for Trump, he did not want to be the focus with so many things to be done for health care today.”
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is close to Price, said in a statement that Price was “a good man” and “a superb health secretary.” Ryan made no comment on the scandal, saying instead, “I will always be grateful for Tom’s service to this country and, above all, his continued friendship.”
Democrats zeroed in on the spending as well as deploring Price’s work against the Affordable Care Act.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking Democratic member, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, called out Price’s “repeated and flagrant abuse of taxpayer funds.” Pallone added that Price “was never the right person to lead the agency responsible for protecting the overall health of all Americans.”
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 trades in health stocks 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.
Some Georgia officials expressed concern that without Price at the helm, the state will lose influence in health policy and a friend in Washington when sit comes to decisions that affect the state.
Price becomes the first Cabinet member to exit the Trump administration since the president was sworn into office in January.
Names of 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.