WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump is seeking a new health secretary to take the place of Tom Price, ousted after an outcry over flying on costly private charters for official travel.
The Health and Human Services chief oversees a $1 trillion department, with 80,000 employees and jurisdiction over major insurance programs, advanced medical research, drug and food safety, public health, and disease prevention.
The administration will also have to contend with renewed scrutiny of Cabinet members’ travel. Following news reports about Price, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched a governmentwide investigation of travel by top political appointees.
Trump has named Don J. Wright, a deputy assistant secretary of health, to serve as acting secretary.
Mentioned as a possible permanent successor to Price is Seema Verma, a protege of Vice President Mike Pence. She now leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an HHS division that runs health insurance programs covering more than 130 million Americans.
Verma’s immediate challenge is to manage the 2018 open enrollment season under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, which Trump and the GOP-led Congress have been unable to repeal.
Another possible HHS candidate is FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who won some bipartisan support in his confirmation and is well known in policy, government and industry circles.
Price, 62, a former GOP congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, resigned Friday afternoon. His pattern of costly trips triggered investigations that overshadowed the administration’s agenda and angered his boss. Price’s regrets and a partial repayment couldn’t save his job.
Price became the first member of Trump’s Cabinet to be pushed out in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. He served less than eight months.
On Friday Trump called Price a “very fine person,” but added, “I certainly don’t like the optics” around his travels.
Price said in his resignation letter that he regretted that “recent events have created a distraction.”
Privately, Trump had been telling associates in recent days that Price was overshadowing his tax overhaul agenda and undermining his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, according to three people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Price’s repayment of $51,887.31 for his own travel costs did not placate the White House. The total travel cost, including the secretary’s entourage, could amount to several hundred thousand dollars.
An orthopedic surgeon turned politician, Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. When Price joined the administration, Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new health care bill to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
But Price became more of a supporting player in the GOP’s futile health care campaign, while Vice President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly with the Senate. The perception of Price jetting around while GOP lawmakers labored to repeal the Obama health law – including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe- raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Price flew on military aircraft overseas.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Friday that Price had worked hard to help that chamber pass its plan before the GOP effort reached an impasse in the Senate. “I will always be grateful for Tom’s service to this country,” he said.
Democrats were glad to see Price go. Some urged Trump to appoint an HHS secretary who would reach out to them.
“I hope President Trump learns from this mistake, and looks to appoint someone who can work in a bipartisan way to strengthen health care for all Americans,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Price used private charter flights on 10 trips with multiple segments, when in many cases cheaper commercial flights were available. His charter travel was first reported by the news site Politico.
The controversy over Price was a catalyst for Congress launching a bipartisan probe of travel by political appointees across the administration. The House oversight committee has requested travel records from the White House and 24 federal departments and agencies.
Initially, Price’s office said the secretary’s busy scheduled forced him to use charters from time to time.
But later Price’s response changed, and he said he’d heard the criticism and concern, and taken it to heart.