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HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns in wake of travel spending scandal

WASHINGTON — President Trump accepted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s resignation on Friday, the White House said, ending days of presidential criticism over Price’s use of private airplanes.

Price “offered his resignation earlier today and the President accepted,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a brief statement.

Sanders said Trump will designate Don Wright, the deputy assistant secretary for Health and Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, as acting HHS secretary. He’s a holdover from the Obama administration.

In his resignation letter, Price told Trump that he regrets how “recent events have created a distraction” from the president’s agenda, including unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The announcement came less than two hours after Trump called Price a “very fine man,” but once again expressed his irritation about how Price racked up roughly $1 million in flight costs on private and military aircraft since taking office in February.

“I certainly don’t like the optics,” Trump told reporters as he headed for the presidential helicopter Marine One, en route to a weekend stay at his golf club in New Jersey. “I’m not happy, I can tell you that. I’m not happy.”

Later, before boarding Air Force One, Trump was asked if Price offered to resign, and responded: “No, but we’ll see what happens later on.”

Price is the latest high-ranking official to leave the Trump administration, joining a list that includes White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, senior strategist Steve Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The president also dismissed FBI Director James Comey.

The former Georgia congressman is the second Cabinet member to depart; Trump’s first pick for Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, left to replace Priebus as chief of staff.

Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York, who criticized Price for leading efforts to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, said he hopes the next secretary will reverse that course.

“The mission of the Health and Human Services secretary should be to support Americans’ health care, not take it away,” Schumer said. “The next HHS secretary must follow the law when it comes to the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to sabotage it.”

Price said in his resignation letter that he wanted “to reform a broken health care system, empower patients, reduce regulatory burdens, ensure global health security, and tackle clinical priorities such as the opioids epidemic, serious mental illness and childhood obesity.”

Politico first revealed that Price billed taxpayers for the more costly flights, instead of flying commercial airlines, which would be cheaper.

Hours after the resignation, the White House budget director sent a memo to all federal agencies requiring the approval of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly before chartering aircraft. “With few exceptions, the commercial air system used by millions of Americans every day is appropriate, even for very senior officials,” he said.

Those required to fly on military aircraft, like the Secretary of Defense, are exempt from the new policy.

“Beyond the law and formal policy, departments and agencies should recognize that we are public servants. Every penny we spend comes from the taxpayer,” Mulvaney said in an unusually plain-spoken memo. “Put another way, just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.”

On Thursday, Price said he would repay the government about $52,000 for his domestic travel on chartered planes. He apologized for taking the flights.

“I regret the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “All of my political career, I’ve fought for the taxpayers. It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials.”

Price’s apology came the same day that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked President Trump to explain what the administration has done to make sure his Cabinet is being cost-effective in its travels.

A one-time chairman of the Budget Committee, Price is an orthopedic surgeon who entered politics as a member of the Georgia legislature. He was an early and active opponent of the Affordable Care Act.

Even before he was confirmed by a party-line 52-47 vote in the Senate, Price had stirred controversy for his series of trades in stocks affected by legislation he introduced in Congress.

In February, USA TODAY reported on two separate stock transactions by Price involving companies that would have benefited from the Patient Access to Durable Medical Equipment Act he introduced in May 2016.

Price’s bill reversed cuts in reimbursement to makers of home medical beds and other equipment. He bought $15,000 worth of shares in McKesson, which bills itself as the oldest and largest health care company in the world, and distributes drugs, medical supplies and equipment including beds and lifts for homes.

A week after he introduced the bill, Price purchased up to $15,000 worth of shares in Blackstone, which owns the privately held home medical equipment company Apria.

Apria sells home medical equipment, including walkers, hospital beds and wound therapy devices.

Former government ethics lawyers said Price bought and sold health care company stocks often enough as a member of Congress to warrant probes by both federal securities regulators and the House ethics committee.

Between 2012 and February, Price traded shares worth more than $300,000 in about 40 health-related companies, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. At the same time, Price was on the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on health working on measures that could affect his investments.

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