In late January, not long after President Donald Trump took office, his Department of Health and Human Services pulled the plug on $5 million in Obamacare advertising — only days before open enrollment for the program closed.
“We aren’t going to continue spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars promoting a failed government program,” a spokesman said at the time. “Once an assessment was made, we pulled back the most expensive and least efficient part of this massive ad campaign, which was set to run over the weekend.”
The decision was made after now former HHS Secretary Tom Price was nominated but before he was confirmed in the Senate, on February 10. Nearly eight months on, HHS spending is in the news again, and Price is right at the center of it.
According to a Politico tally, the outgoing secretary has spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer cash — at least 20% of the department’s precious Obamacare ad savings — on chartered private and military jet trips.
The boss breathing down his neck, Price on Thursday pledged to reach into his own pocket in an effort to make it better.
“Today, I will write a personal check to the US Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes,” he said in a statement. “The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes.”
But the promise mostly fell flat. “My travel” and “my seat” hardly cover the considerable expenses. Price will only be paying for himself. His travel. His seat. According to a spokesperson, that means the US Treasury should expect only a modest refund — precisely $51,887.31.
But the blowback against Price was about more than dollars and cents. His tab, though gaudy by most Americans’ standards, hardly registers as a percentage of HHS or overall federal spending. The issue here is hypocrisy. Price cast himself for years as a deficit hawk, determined to save the country from its profligate ways.
“Reckless spending habits employed by Democrats in Washington are driving the debt,” he tweeted back in May 2011, when he was a congressman and Barack Obama was the President. “We need #spendingcutsnow.”
When a Congress run by Democrats requested funding for new private jets back in the summer of 2009, Price and his colleagues channeled their outrage out over the airwaves.
“This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now,” he said during an interview on CNBC. “They’ve got 24 (jets) right now. No need for four more, my goodness gracious. Especially in this time of fiscal crisis. What we need to do is be cutting it to zero.”
Price, of course, is not alone in holding his colleagues across the aisle to a skewed standard of behavior. That’s standard operating procedure in the swamp, no matter which party patrols its murky waters.
But the secretary, whose net worth is estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics to be $13.6 million, had a habit of getting his name in the news for all the wrong reasons. Before his confirmation, CNN’s Manu Raju broke the story that Price in 2016 purchased shares in a medical device company days before he introduced a bill that would have directly benefited it.
“It clearly has the appearance of using your influence as a congressman to your financial benefit,” Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told CNN at the time. “If (Price) believed in the bill, he should not have purchased the stock.”
Perhaps even more evocative of Price’s questionable commitment to fiscal propriety, is a report published by Buzzfeed on Thursday that early on in Price’s tenure at HHS, he sought to reopen the department’s executive dining room. The Obama administration employed chefs for the HHS chief, but, according to Buzzfeed, the meals were either served in the secretary’s office or, if there was a crowd, in a conference room.
Price’s apparent desire to layer a shine on his new digs clashed awkwardly with the cuts the Trump administration is pushing for HHS and the dozens of programs that operate under its umbrella.
Released in May, the President’s first full budget proposal sought to slash some $4.1 trillion in 2018 spending. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) faced an immediate reduction of $1.2 billion while Medicaid was faced with $610 billion in cuts against expected costs over the next decade.
Former CDC director Tom Frieden tweeted out an itemization of the programs and services on the hook. Notable among them: $186 million stripped from efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The budget blueprint was met with fierce opposition from Democrats and a range of critics, many noting Trump’s campaign pledge not to mess with Medicaid. But from the beginning, Price stood out as a stalwart defender of the administration’s plans.
“Our goal is to fashion a budget that focuses on the things that work,” he told a House committee in late March, “(a budget that) tries to decrease the areas where there are either duplications or redundancies or waste, and whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer.”
But with his resignation Friday, Price’s would-be efforts to deliver that “return” beyond what he’s committed in reimbursements for his travel, came to an inglorious end.