The White House approved the use of military aircraft for multi-national trips by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to Africa and Europe this spring, and to Asia in the summer, at a cost of more than $500,000 to taxpayers.
The overseas trips bring the total cost to taxpayers of Price’s travels to more than $1 million since May, according to a POLITICO review.
Price pledged on Thursday to reimburse the government for the cost of his own seat on his domestic trips using private aircraft — reportedly around $52,000 — but that would not include the cost of the military flights.
Price’s wife, Betty, accompanied him on the military flights, while other members of the secretary’s delegation flew commercially to Europe.
HHS spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest said Price has reimbursed the agency for the cost of his wife’s travel abroad, but declined to say when he did so. Price has been under intense criticism since POLITICO revealed his extensive use of charter aircraft for domestic flights last week. His travel expenditures are subject to reviews by the HHS inspector general and the House Oversight Committee. Democratic and Republican senators have also demanded information about Price’s travel expenditures.
The White House assesses the use of military aircraft for overseas travel by Cabinet members on a case-by-case basis. Secretaries whose jobs involve national security functions are more likely to require military jets, but the White House occasionally approves the use of military planes for other members of the Cabinet.
“Use of military aircraft for Cabinet and other essential travelers is sometimes an appropriate and necessary use of resources,” said Raj Shah, White House principal deputy press secretary.
But one of Price’s recent predecessors, Kathleen Sebelius, who served for five years under President Barack Obama, said she never took a military plane on her many trips overseas; she always flew commercially. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who served as HHS secretary for the final 2½ years of the Obama administration, used a military jet for travel to Havana, Cuba, according to former HHS aides.
It is not clear whether Burwell, who did not respond to requests for comment, used military planes on other trips overseas. Two former aides said her husband accompanied her on the trip to Cuba and reimbursed the government for the costs of the trip.
But Yoest said, “It’s our understanding that previous secretaries have never reimbursed for spousal travel,” referencing Burwell’s trip to Cuba.
Price’s overseas trips on government planes included stops in Berlin, Geneva, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City and Tokyo, where he attended world health meetings and met with other high-level officials. In May, Price also visited Liberia, where he discussed the nation’s response to the Ebola virus that ravaged the West African country three years ago.
“The trips he’s gone on make total sense,” one former HHS official said of Price. “It’s just how he got there.”
Yoest, the HHS spokeswoman, said the use of military aircraft — known as Milair — was necessary both for Price’s security and his ability to communicate with the department.
“In both instances, those were Milair flights that were pre-approved,” said Yoest. “We don’t have a deputy secretary that’s been confirmed … Milair is important for maintaining security and having secure communications, as well.”
A White House official confirmed that President Donald Trump’s staff approved the flights. Trump has been sharply critical of Price’s use of chartered aircraft on domestic flights, saying “we’ll see” when asked whether he would fire Price over the issue.
The Trump administration pointed to statistics showing that it approved fewer trips abroad on military aircraft compared with the first eight months of the Obama administration: There were 77 military trips during the first eight months of the Trump administration, compared with 94 at the same point during the Obama years, according to a White House official.
“Fact: Trump [administration] authorized fewer flights on military aircraft by senior govt officials than previous [administration],” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed.
During six terms as a Republican House member from Georgia, Price had cultivated a reputation as a fiscal hawk keen on reining in federal spending.
In June, Price defended a proposed budget for HHS that included a $663,000 cut to the agency’s $4.9 million annual spending on travel, or roughly 15 percent. “The budgeting process is an exercise in reforming our federal programs to make sure they actually work — so they do their job and use tax dollars wisely,” Price testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee on June 8.
Nonetheless, his travel tab has exceeded $1 million when accounting for both the overseas trips and the more than two dozen trips he has taken on private planes domestically since May.
For instance, Price took a Gulfstream C-37B owned by the Department of Defense for a weeklong trip in late May through Africa and Europe. The six legs of travel, which represented about 30 hours of flight time, were projected to cost $311,418.25, according to an invoice reviewed by POLITICO.
On May 17, Price flew to Liberia, where he met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other top officials to discuss global health security and public health emergency preparedness, according to an HHS readout of his meetings. He then went to the G-20 health ministers meeting in Berlin, which was held May 19 and 20. His ultimate destination was the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, where he stayed until May 24.
HHS secretaries routinely attend the World Health Assembly, often accompanied by a large delegation, as well as other ministerial meetings with world health officials. This year’s delegation included nearly 50 people, all of whom were HHS staff or federal employees — except for Price’s wife, a physician who was listed as an adviser.
Price, his wife and eight HHS personnel took the Gulfstream from Berlin to Geneva on Sunday, May 21, an HHS official confirmed. The 95-minute trip was projected to cost taxpayers almost $16,000, according to an invoice.
There are multiple commercial flight options on that route, such as several daily flights by EasyJet, for about $260 per ticket or less. The German airline Lufthansa is currently running a promotion for one-way flights between Berlin and Geneva for just $60.
Other members of the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly contacted by POLITICO said they did not take military aircraft to get to Geneva for the conference.