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Trump's health secretary resigns amid private-jet scandal

[WASHINGTON] Embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned amid an uproar over his use of private and military jets at taxpayer expense while heading one of the US's largest government agencies.

Mr Price, 62, quit after it was revealed by Politico that he took more than two dozen private flights at taxpayer expense as well as trips to Europe, Africa and Asia on military aircraft, at a total cost of more than US$1 million. The HHS department's Office of Inspector General launched an investigation, as did Congress.  Mr Price is the first cabinet secretary to leave the administration, though President Donald Trump's volatile White House has already seen the departure of several top staffers.

Mr Trump had hinted earlier in the day that Mr Price's time with the administration could be close to coming to an end. Asked whether he had sought Mr Price's resignation, the president said, "no, but we'll see what happens later on." On Thursday, Mr Trump made it clear that he was upset with the health secretary. "I am not happy with him," he said.

Mr Price's exit could distract from other administration priorities like tax reform. It may also raise more questions about other agency heads who have taken taxpayer-funded trips on private aircraft, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, as reported by CBS; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, according to the Washington Post.

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Mr Trump intends to designate Don J Wright of Virginia to serve as acting secretary, effective at 11:59pm on Friday. He currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for health.

Mr Price's seven-month round trip in and out of the health agency was bracketed by questions about his conduct, starting with trading of stock in health-care companies and ending with the jet trips. Mr Price said he would write a check for the chartered jet trips to the US government for US$51,887.31 to cover his seat.  HHS didn't immediately respond when asked for a comment from Mr Price and if he would still pay back the funds.

Mr Price told Mr Trump in his resignation it was a "privilege to serve you." "I have spent forty years both as a doctor and public servant putting people first," Mr Price wrote. "I regret that the recent events have created a distraction from these important objectives."

Mr Price's acting replacement Wright also serves as acting assistant secretary for health, overseeing the department's health policy recommendations, a position he has served in since February. He has a medical degree from the University of Texas and a master's degree in public health from the Medical College of Wisconsin.

During the administration's months-long attempt to get Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Mr Price wasn't an obvious force in the Senate where the effort is indefinitely stalled. He did, however, let the law wither under his administrative tenure. His agency slashed advertising funding meant to get people to sign up for insurance plans sold under the law, and cut budgets for local groups of "navigators" who helped people find the right plan for them.

HHS also shortened the time when people could sign up for coverage, and took other steps that critics decried as "sabotage."

Mr Price's successor will have to decide whether to try and make Obamacare succeed, attempt to modify it by rewriting its rules and regulations, or allow it to slide into neglect.

"The mission of the Health and Human Services secretary should be to support Americans' health care, not take it away," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. The next HHS secretary must follow the law when it comes to the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to sabotage it."

One obvious candidate to succeed Mr Price is Seema Verma, who leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and is directly responsible for running much of the Affordable Care Act. Another is Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner who has implemented several programs on drug Mr Prices and modernising the agency.

Ms Verma is seen as close to the White House. She worked with Vice President Mike Pence to implement the then-governor's Healthy Indiana Plan, and has regularly visited Capitol Hill to help push Obamacare repeal efforts.

Mr Price, a doctor, joined Congress in 2005 as a representative from Georgia and was one of the original members of the Tea Party, which promotes small government. In the House, he introduced several bills to replace Obamacare. While his nomination to head HHS was backed by the American Medical Association, the US's largest doctors lobby, that group and almost every other health-care trade organization issued strong statements opposing the administration's Obamacare-repeal attempts.

Mr Price was sworn in in February as he was being asked about whether, as a congressman, he improperly traded stocks of medical companies while at the same time dealing with health-care legislation that could have affected them.

In one instance, he received a discount on shares of Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd, an Australian biotechhnology company. He also invested in a medical-supply distributor before introducing legislation that could have benefited the company.

Mr Price defended the trades at the time, saying a broker directed the trades independently, except for his purchase of Innate shares. He said he learned Innate and the special stock offering through Innate board member and fellow Representative Chris Collins of New York.

Then, this month, Politico reported that he had taken more than two dozen private flights at a cost to taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars, including trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where his son lives and where Mr Price owns a condominium. His office defended the travel decisions, calling the trips more convenient than cheaper commercial travel. Cabinet members typically fly on commercial airlines unless there is a specific reason to take a private plane.

In 2009, Mr Price told CNBC that Congress should cut spending on government planes that supporters said were needed to carry military officials leading soldiers into combat. Mr Price criticised an original effort to spend US$550 million on eight passenger jets, and also objected to a reduced US$220 million request for four jets.

"Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets," he said at the time. "This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now." Mr Price was confirmed in February by a party-line vote in the Senate. Democrats opposed his free-market views on health care and his promises to help repeal the Affordable Care Act.

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