Dr. Tom Price’s taste for travel by pricey private jets cost him his job two years ago as U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary. So why did the agency recently honor his few, scandal-plagued months of service with a reception this month to unveil an official photo portrait?
The Nov. 19 event was especially galling because it’s still unclear whether HHS has recovered the dollars Price spent needlessly chartering aircraft instead of flying commercial. A report by the HHS Office of Inspector General put Price’s total travel bill at $1.2 million from February 2017 until his resignation that fall. Investigators recommended administrative action to recoup $333,014 of “identified waste.”
Price, a Georgia physician and former Republican U.S. House member, wrote a personal check for almost $52,000 in repayment. But taxpayers are apparently still owed a chunk of money, as a congressional inquiry this fall made clear. Fourteen months after the OIG report, HHS “has not provided proof of any demonstrable progress,” according to an Oct. 23 letter signed by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, Patty Murray and Elizabeth Warren. All are Democrats.
HHS officials said Tuesday that his former staff took up a collection to pay for the celebration, but the decision to go ahead with it, and to have current HHS Secretary Alex Azar laud Price’s leadership in a flowery speech, was tone-deaf at best. Congress also needs to step up its investigation into why additional funds remain uncollected. The foot-dragging merits more than a strongly worded letter. If Price’s supporters can throw him a party, perhaps they could reimburse some of the remaining sum to cover his luxury travel choices.
The case for stronger oversight is strengthened by a subsequent example of dubious spending by another top HHS official. Seema Verma, the Trump appointee who leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), has been dogged for months by troubling questions about her agency’s use of expensive outside consultants. Among other things, the consultants worked to “amplify coverage of Verma’s own work” and to “improve her personal brand.”
Politico reporters Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn broke the story earlier this year. The contracts for public relations and communications services cost the agency an estimated $3.25 million. The hiring makes little sense since the agency has a sizable communications staff.
Last week, Politico provided further detail on the services these contractors provided. E-mails obtained by the reporters show that “federal health officials discussed with contractors a publicity plan to feature … Verma in magazines like Glamour, win recognition for her on ‘Power Women’ lists and get her invited to attend prestigious events like the Kennedy Center Honors.”
While Verma was questioned about the consulting contracts at a congressional hearing last month, the new reporting from Politico requires further investigation. Verma said at the hearing that the all the contracts “are based on promoting” her agency’s work. She should be invited by members of Congress to appear again to explain how using federal funds to land magazine profiles and gala invitations fits within the agency’s mission and regulations.
Closer to home, Minnesotans and their lawmakers have asked understandably tough questions about the leadership of the state agency that shares HHS’s mission: administering public assistance programs. Leadership turnover at the state Department of Human Services and massive overpayments to substance abuse providers have led to commendably strengthened oversight and the appointment of a new leader, Jodi Harpstead, committed to restoring the public’s trust.
Congress needs to follow Minnesota’s strong lead and improve HHS oversight. The federal agency’s mission, which includes overseeing the Medicare program for seniors, is vital. The Price reception and Verma’s vanity projects do not inspire confidence in its leaders’ judgment or priorities.