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Federal Watchdog Advises HHS to Recoup Price’s Travel Expenses

20 of 21 trips failed to comply with requirements, OIG finds

Former secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal watchdog is recommending the Department of Health and Human Services recoup $341,000 associated with former Secretary Tom Price’s travel expenses.

The HHS Office of the Inspector General released Thursday an audit that found 20 of 21 trips Price and other HHS officials took during his time in office did not comply with federal requirements. Price, a hardline fiscal conservative during his time in Congress, resigned last September after it was revealed that he regularly chartered private planes for routine business trips.

The report suggests Price and his wife would have to reimburse the government for any of their personal travel taken on government aircraft that Price had not already repaid.

The 21 trips for Price and his staff cost taxpayers a total of $1.2 million, the OIG found, including “at least” $341,000 in wasteful spending. Price repaid nearly $52,000 for his seat on the planes and another $7,500 for bringing his wife on several trips.

The OIG found HHS often did not compare costs between taking chartered flights and commercial flights. When HHS booked chartered travel, the department occasionally did not use the lowest quoted price. For an Aug. 25 trip to Seattle, for example, HHS received one quote at $75,829, but booked another plane at $121,500.

OIG outlined a number of specific areas where HHS should “take appropriate administrative actions” to recoup spending. But HHS said it’s not clear that recouping the money is “legally appropriate” and that it’s continuing to review the matter.

OIG also recommended HHS institute better regulations and training for employees regarding business travel, to which the department agreed. Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, who served as acting secretary after Price’s resignation, said HHS has since established the “most rigorous controls on travel in the organization’s history.”

“Reviews like this are an important part of any organization’s efforts to ensure that best practices are being utilized,” Hargan said in a statement. “The department understands the auditor’s concern that the processes and record keeping regarding travel could have been more comprehensive, and, since the period examined by the audit, HHS has instituted new travel review procedures applicable to all political appointees.”

Hargan noted, however, that Price did not break the law.

“As a matter of law, none of the travel at issue was unauthorized,” he said.

Revelations about Price’s travel triggered investigations into irresponsible expenditures from other Trump cabinet members, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt, who resigned last week.

Democrats reacted quickly to the HHS OIG report.

“This report confirms Tom Price’s role as the poster child for the rampant waste of taxpayer dollars that has occurred on Trump’s watch — all while he was pursuing dangerous policies that increase families’ premiums and weaken their health care,” said Finance Committee top Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. “This unseemly saga is a reminder of why public officials need to be carefully scrutinized before the Senate places them in positions of enormous responsibility.” 

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