Lately, doctors in politics are doing their original profession a disservice.
From neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s sleepy and tangential presidential debate performances (and scientifically inaccurate statements to the department he now leads) to gastroenterologist Sen. Bill Cassidy’s underhanded sales job for his bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, it’s fair to ask what makes physicians so special as the people’s representatives. And now comes orthopedic surgeon and former congressman Tom Price, who has resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) after offering the American people an apology and a fractional refund for wasting over $1 million of taxpayer money to charter private and military flights during his short stint in office.
Price lost his position over this scandal, given how it entirely undercut his political persona as a fiscal conservative. But Price’s mismanagement of taxpayer resources for official travel pales in comparison to his active sabotage of Obamacare, a program it was his duty to administer carefully so long as it remains the law of the land.
During Affordable Care Act marketplace enrollment dates (November 1 through December 15) the HHS department typically joins community health groups in local campaigns to encourage signups. Given how insurance works, the more people that buy into it, the lower the costs for everyone, and the more stable the insurance markets will be. Price directed his department to pull out of these events, and slashed the advertising budget to spread the word by 90%.
In response to media inquiries about this, the HHS press secretary, Caitlin Oakley, responded with a statement: “Marketplace enrollment events are organized and implemented by outside groups with their own agendas, not HHS. These events may continue regardless of HHS participation. As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures.”
It was fair politics for Secretary Price to back all of the failed Obamacare repeal efforts this year. It was fair politics for Secretary Price to back a budget that slashes funding for his HHS, the CDC and NIH, to the dismay of the medical and scientific establishment. I’m a doctor too, and we can disagree on policy.
But Price’s efforts to destroy the law he wanted to see replaced weren’t on the level for someone who became a government administrator tasked with executing that law on behalf of the American people.
Price’s department also plans to shut down the HealthCare.gov enrollment website for 12 hours during all but one Sunday during the enrollment period for “scheduled maintenance.” Eighty members of the House have signed a letter urging the secretary to shorten the maintenance period, which appears designed to intentionally cut down on the time Americans have to enroll in ACA plans. Though it isn’t yet clear what the upshot of Price’s resignation will be, these planned lengthy outages come on top of Price’s decision in the spring to cut this year’s Obamacare enrollment period in half from last year’s 90-day period.
Yet those aren’t the facts that resulted in his resignation. Price’s $1 million private flight tab crowns him as the king of travel waste amongst the Trump cabinet, far exceeding the reported travel expenses that have also put Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke under scrutiny. Before his resignation, Price found himself in the crosshairs of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and now a bipartisan assortment of members from both houses piled on.
Price, whose net worth is estimated at $13.6 million, has the ability to repay the full cost of his fare on these flights. But his offering up the government a $52,000 reimbursement only made his situation worse, in my estimation, by revealing a character flaw.
Price’s check, which he described as covering “the expenses of my travel,” represented an attempt to save his own skin at the cost of the HHS underlings who accompanied him on some of these flights. By offering up his fractional reimbursement check, he endorsed the idea that any government official who rode on these flights with him, including much lower level functionaries, bear the responsibility to reimburse the government for their own seats. If Secretary Price believed himself solely to blame, as the official who decided to charter the flights in the first place, then he should have offered to pay their entire costs. One can understand why he was reluctant to do so, at roughly 7% of his estimated net worth.
Right about now Tom Price probably wishes he hadn’t given up his Georgia congressional seat, the one fought over in a battle of national proportions between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff, to join the Cabinet. I think most physicians are right there with him. Certainly, the American Medical Association has not sent the Trump administration its finest.