The private jets could cost up to $60,000, Politico reported
Price has been a strong critic of government spending
Democrats say they are planning to look into a report about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price taking five work-related trips on private jets last week, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more than had he flown commercial.
Price – who has vowed to cut wasteful spending in his agency – traveled to a resort in Maine where he was part of a discussion with a health care industry CEO, as well as community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The flights were first reported by Politico. Charmaine Yoest, the assistant secretary for public affairs, confirmed to CNN that the money for the trips came out of the HHS’s budget.
Price has traveled on taxpayer-funded charter flights at least 24 times since May, Politico also reported Thursday, citing people familiar with his travel plans and a review of HHS documents.
“I would remind Secretary Price that taxpayer funds are not meant to be used as a jet-setting slush fund,” Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., the top Democrat on the House energy and commerce panel, said in a statement Wednesday. “There is no reason to be regularly chartering private flights at the taxpayers’ expense between commercially serviced routes such Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia.”
He said Democrats plan to ask the HHS inspector general to review Price’s travel. The IG’s office has not received an official request from the Hill but it will likely open an inquiry once they receive the official request from members of Congress, the office told CNN.
Price’s travel itinerary included private jets that charter operators estimated would cost at least $60,000, according to Politico.
His travel breaks with the precedent set by former President Barack Obama’s HHS secretaries Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, who flew commercially when flying within the US.
Yoest said Price scheduled the private jets because of his demanding schedule.
“Within an incredibly demanding schedule full of 13-plus-hour days, every effort is being made to maximize Secretary Price’s ability to travel outside Washington to meet with the American people and carry out HHS’s missions,” she said in a statement. “The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible.”
HHS legal counsel reviewed the request for Price to fly on a private jet, she said. She also added the decision was made because Price has a “packed tight” schedule and “no room for error,” meaning delays or cancellations that are possible on commercial flights. She also sited “security concerns.”
Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, the ranking member on the Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management Subcommittee, wants to look into the report as well, according to an aide.
Politico found that there were commercial flights and trains available for Price’s trips, including one to Philadelphia, which is only a 125-mile drive from HHS headquarters in downtown Washington to the center where Price spoke.
Price is a frequent critic of government spending. He told CNN in April that he wants to cut redundancy and waste in his agency.
“For us to say, ‘OK, let’s just throw more money at that system. Let’s see if more money helps that out’ is the wrong way,” Price told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
And in 2009, Price railed against congressional expenditures in the hundreds of millions of dollars for several private planes that would ferry members of Congress.
“This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now,” Price said in a CNBC interview at the time.
CNN’s Dan Merica and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.