Investigators reviewing HHS chief’s private flights

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Associated Press

Washington — Federal investigators are examining Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s recent use of costly charter flights on the taxpayers’ dime for official business.

The HHS inspector general’s office said Friday the agency is reviewing Price’s charters to see if they violated government travel regulations, which generally require officials to minimize costs.

“We take this matter very seriously, and when questions arose about potentially inappropriate travel, we immediately began assessing the issue,” Tesia Williams, spokeswoman for the department’s inspector general, said in a statement. The review doesn’t imply any conclusions of misconduct, Williams said.

In articles this week, Politico reported on Price’s trips, saying it has identified at least 24 flights since early May.

Congressional Democrats say Price wasted taxpayer dollars by chartering private planes for official business when other cheaper options were available. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said he would seek an investigation by the HHS inspector general.

Price is a former Republican congressman from Georgia and onetime chairman of the House Budget Committee. According to the initial Politico report, he chartered flights to a resort in Maine, where he was part of a discussion with a health care industry CEO.

He also flew on charters to visit community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. One leg was from Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles.

Price’s office said earlier this week the secretary has a demanding schedule and it’s not always feasible for him to fly on commercial flights. There was no immediate response Friday to questions about the inspector general’s review.

As Budget chairman, Price was a frequent critic of wasteful spending. As HHS secretary, he has questioned whether the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people delivers results that are worth the billions of dollars taxpayers spend subsidizing coverage.

Other members of the Cabinet contacted by The Associated Press said they personally foot the bill for chartered travel or reimburse taxpayers the difference between commercial and chartered travel. Exceptions are when they travel with the president or vice president aboard government planes.

The HHS inspector general’s office is mainly known for investigating waste, fraud and abuse in health care programs. But it also acts as a watchdog over department officials.