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Trump seeks new health chief after Price resigns over private flights scandal


Tom Price resigned as US Health and Human Services Secretary (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Tom Price resigned as US Health and Human Services Secretary (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Tom Price resigned as US Health and Human Services Secretary (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

US President Donald Trump is seeking a new health secretary to take the place of Tom Price, who stepped down following an outcry over flying on costly private charters for official travel.

The Health and Human Services chief oversees a 1 trillion US dollars department, with 80,000 employees and jurisdiction over major insurance programmes, 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 Mr Price, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched a government-wide investigation of travel by top political appointees.

Mr Trump has named Don J Wright, a deputy assistant secretary of health, to serve as acting secretary.

Mentioned as a possible permanent successor to Mr Price is Seema Verma, a protege of Vice President Mike Pence. She now leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an HHS division which runs health insurance programmes covering more than 130 million Americans.

Ms Verma's immediate challenge is to manage the 2018 open enrolment season under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, which Mr Trump and the Republican-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.

Mr Price, 62, a former GOP congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, resigned on Friday afternoon. His pattern of costly trips triggered investigations which overshadowed the administration's agenda and angered his boss. His regrets and a partial repayment could not save his job.

Mr Price became the first member of Mr 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 Mr Trump called Mr Price a "very fine person", but added "I certainly don't like the optics" around his travels.

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Mr Price said in his resignation letter that he regretted that "recent events have created a distraction".

Privately, Mr Trump was reported to have been telling associates in recent days that Mr Price was overshadowing his tax overhaul agenda and undermining his campaign promise to "drain the swamp" of corruption.

Mr Price's repayment of 51,887.31 US dollars (£38,715) 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 orthopaedic surgeon turned politician, Mr Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. When he joined the administration, Mr Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new healthcare Bill to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

But Mr Price became more of a supporting player in the GOP's futile healthcare campaign, while Vice President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly with the Senate. The perception of Mr Price jetting around while Republican politicians laboured to repeal the Obama health law - including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe - raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Mr Price flew on military aircraft overseas.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Friday that Mr 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 Mr Price go, and some urged Mr 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 Republican Frank Pallone.

Mr 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 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, Mr Price's office said the secretary's busy scheduled forced him to use charters from time to time. But later his response changed, and he said he had heard the criticism and concern, and taken it to heart.


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