Bidding Bon Voyage to Tom Price

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is seen silhouetted as he speaks during a news conference in Washington. 

It is a poetic punctuation mark on the public career of former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price that one of the flights that undid him landed at an airport serving the “Golden Isles of Georgia.” As a congressman representing a belt of Atlanta suburbs, Price years ago purchased beachfront property on St. Simon, the very “golden isle” he visited last August on one of some two dozen trips the former secretary of Health and Human Services took on privately chartered and government-owned Gulfstreams and Learjets.

All told, these flights cost taxpayers more than $1 million, or roughly a fifth of the value of the St. Simon plot that serves as a monument to the legally and morally suspect fortune Price accumulated over a 20-year career in the U.S. Congress and the Georgia state Senate.

The visit Price made to St. Simon during his final month at the apex of U.S. health care contains rich overlap with his personal life—a reminder of where Tom Price comes from, who he is and has always been. His official business on the island was the annual gathering of the Medical Association of Georgia.

The powwow featured many of Price’s oldest friends, including some that helped launch his public career nearly a quarter century ago. In 1993, Price, then a young orthopedic surgeon at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, gave his first political speeches as part of the coordinated effort to defeat President Clinton’s health-care plan. Under the banner of the Georgia chapter of the American Medical Association, Price barnstormed the state warning of the dangers of the Clinton administration’s moderate ideas.

“These reforms,” Price told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, “would limit the amount of care delivered [and] the quality of care given.”

In the intervening years, Price has repeated and refined versions of this statement countless times. In the Georgia state legislature and in Congress, he has helped strategize and implement every counter-assault against attempts to expand health care—for poor children in Georgia and for Americans who can’t get coverage because of pre-existing conditions. He has also worked closely with his corporate sponsors to beat back efforts to make our wasteful and disjoined private system more efficient.

It is easy to imagine Price on St. Simon last month, wine in hand, accepting toasts to this legacy and reminiscing with friends and allies about long-ago battles against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP. It’s no secret that Price basked in the power and glory of his dream job running the nation’s largest federal agency.

There should be little doubt that he took a profound pleasure in returning by private plane to St. Simon, a warm and sandy patch of home turf, to receive a general’s welcome, never suspecting that it was all about to blow away in a storm of scandal, public outrage, and rebuke from a president who gained his public support sooner than most.

The scandal over his travel habits must have come as a genuine surprise to the man nicknamed “Dr. No” by his GOP colleagues. It’s true that in the past he had blasted political opponents for the same infractions. But Price has been a polished operator for a long time, well practiced and instinctual in the arts of double-speak and shameless contradiction and hypocrisy.

Compared to professing concern for the health of the American people while working tirelessly to push them out of metaphorical airplanes, attacking Democrats for flying private while doing the same has no mental dissonance at all for someone like Price.

The real scandal involving Tom Price has nothing to do with his indulgent and wasteful flights. The real scandal is his decades of work on behalf of corporate and guild interests and against the interests of the American people. He has performed this work while simultaneously enriching himself in the sector known to investors as Health Care Equipment and Services.

Price is, infamously, himself one of these investors. While sitting on the Ways and Means Committee, Price enjoyed a brazen side hustle trading $300,000 worth of health care-related stocks, all the while advocating for many of these companies with colleagues and federal agencies. Americans may never know the full details of all of those dealings. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was reportedly investigating Price’s dealings, and possibly planning an indictment, when President Trump fired him the day after the new HHS chief assumed office.

What did Price achieve during his blessedly truncated tenure at HHS? Not so much. The effort to repeal Obamacare, for which he’d long been the face on Fox News, has repeatedly failed. Instead, he has been forced to attack the law slyly and around the edges. He rolled back outreach and public education efforts, and used his agency’s social media accounts to criticize and mislead consumers.

He sought to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. He claimed the opioid crisis was his top priority in office, but never showed any interest in Big Pharma’s central role in driving this crisis, or in helping the programs and specialists who have long been on the front lines. In June, he shocked and outraged drug addiction experts by dismissing the use of methadone to treat people addicted to heroin and other narcotics and boosting a controversial and expensive new drug instead.

Of course, Price likes expensive new drugs. They can be very lucrative investment opportunities. If there is one thing Price has demonstrated over the years, it is a good nose for these opportunities. While still in the Georgia legislature, Price became a very wealthy man thanks to an early stake in what became the state’s largest chain of outpatient orthopedic services.

More recently, in his last year in Congress, he scooped up discounted shares in the Australian biotech firm Innate Immuno—a “sweetheart deal” that dogged him during his confirmation hearing. (These hearings, we should remember, ended with the historical anomaly of a unanimous Democratic boycott of the vote.)

After less than a year in Trump’s cabinet, Tom Price is set for what is sure to be a very lucrative landing in the corporate milieu where he is most comfortable, and where he has always belonged. Unburdened by the need to mouth platitudes about the American people and “patient-centered” health care, he can now focus on making money. Thanks to the perversities of our system, his take is sure to be on a grand scale, more than enough to pay for a private jet all his own.

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