By Mason Krohn
“I want to say to the speaker, don't you fly over our country in your luxury jet and lecture us on what it means to be an American.” In 2010, Tom Price, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, made this criticism against Nancy Pelosi because of her use of a private jet to fly to DC from her state of California. Yet, last week, Price was forced to resign for doing the same thing, except with taxpayer dollars. Politco was the first to report on Price’s unjustified conduct by finding internal Health and Human Services documents revealing at least 24 separate flights that Price has taken to conduct HHS business in the past four months. Tom Price’s behavior called into question the privileges that the American government gives to its officials and the Trump administration itself.
Price’s reckless use of taxpayer money led to frustrations across the aisle. The cost of his 24 flights exceeded $1 million, but in order to make amends Price offered up just $50,000 to reimburse his seats on the charter and military planes. President Trump expressed a somewhat blasé view by claiming, “I'm not happy, I can tell you that. I'm not happy,” right before he took off for a weekend of golfing in Bedminster. Among the few sad to see Price go, Paul Ryan comended that “He was a leader in the House and a superb health secretary.” Most recently, Ryan asked the White House to reconsider Price’s removal. In addition, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who attempted to dissolve the Affordable Care Act alongside Price, commented, “Secretary Price’s loss will be felt.” Despite these three takes on Price’s actions, the vast majority of America was happy to see Price out of office because of the plane scandal and other baggage he lugged around Washington D. C.
While Democrats are angry, even moreso Trump supporters saw his flights as a betrayal of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”, a euphemism for removing corrupt career politicians from Washington and replacing them with outsiders free from lobbying and self interests. Due to Price’s scandal, a plethora of investigations have launched against White House officials believed to be guilty for the same crime as Price-- racking up the government’s budget with exorbitant trips. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin used a government plane in August to fly to Kentucky with his wife for an optimal view of the total solar eclipse. When questioned about this violation, Mnuchin told NBC that, “It was approved by the White House and there were reasons why we needed to use that plane that are completely justifiable.” His Kentucky adventure does not stand alone as a sign of his corrupt usage of government property because Treasury investigators are also looking into his request to use a $25,000-per-hour military plane during his European honeymoon. In addition, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used a charter airplane for multiple flights including a trip to give a speech in Las Vegas celebrating their new hockey team which racked up to $12,000. Finally, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the EPA, joined the list by spending more than $58,000 on chartered and military flights. Right now, it is unclear whether these members of Trump’s cabinet will face consequences for their excursions or even if Trump will condemn them given his relative silence on Price’s misuse of government property. But, it can be certain that the American public’s anger will weave through these corrupt officials who essentially epitomize the “swamp”, and perhaps even Trump’s constant vacations to Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago will catch up to him.
Aside from the airplane trip scandal, through his years as a senator and the Secretary, Price was involved in numerous cases of corruption that predominantly surrounded the pharmaceutical industry. Accordingly, his absence in the Health and Human Services Department was celebrated by many advocates for medical reform. For instance, prior to taking office, Australian biotech firm Innate Immuno sold nearly $1 million in discounted shares to him and Representative Chris Collins. Price said he would sell the stock within 60 days of becoming a part of Trump’s cabinet, but already saw a 400% paper gain even before he took the position. Price had a history of being prone to medical and pharmaceutical corruption as a Representative in congress. Look no further than May of 2016, when Price purchased between $1,000 and $15,000 in stock in medical-device company Zimmer Biomet only 2 weeks before he introduced a bill to delay Medicare value-based purchasing rules that decreased payments to Zimmer Biomet. Then, later in 2016, that very same corporation’s political action branch donated $1,000 to Price. In a nation where Epipens cost upwards of $600 and an opioid epidemic kills thousands of citizens annually, seeing a man who pulled strings for corporations at the expense of American health leave office was relieving if not uplifting.
With an empty seat for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the next question is: who will be Price’s replacement and what will that mean for America? One possibility is that Tom Price’s successor will be Tom Price, because as aforementioned, Paul Ryan is pushing the White House to rehire Price to his position. However, given the Senate Democrat’s views of Price such as Chuck Schumer’s statement claiming, “The next HHS secretary must follow the law when it comes to the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to sabotage it,” Price’s confirmation would be unlikely. With Price out of the equation, the leading candidate for his position is Seema Verma, a former healthcare consultant who currently heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and at one point worked under Mike Pence in Indiana. Verma sees the Affordable Care Act as flawed, but despite her conservative opinions, she has worked to expand Medicaid in Indiana and crafted the Healthy Indiana Plan, which expanded health coverage in the state by about 40,000 people. Yet, Verma is willing to take out Obamacare policies and slash funding for Medicare and Medicaid, as evidenced by her work with Pence to lobby legislators towards passing the Graham-Cassidy bill. While Verma still opposes the ACA, she will swing the Department of Health and Human Services to a more centrist approach rather than the obstinate and antagonistic ideology that Price held.
While news of Price’s corrupt excursions outraged the American public, his hypocrisy may actually result in better leadership. The reveal of Price’s taxpayer-funded private jets launched a multitude of investigations of Trump’s cabinet that will not only increase government transparency, but set an example that deters future officials from abusing their power like Price did and Zinke and Mnuchin might have. Furthermore, Price’s exit provides for Seema Verma’s entrance which will harbor greater compromise on health care debates that have been unsuccessful because of partisanship. In the end, Price’s resignation was a win for Americans because he was right-- people who fly over our country in luxury jets (that American taxpayers have to pay for) cannot lecture us on what it means to be American, or dictate our health policy.