OREGON—(ENEWSPF)—September 28, 2017
By: Rosemary Piser
In my former life, I managed the Medicare contract between a national health insurance company and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As part of my job responsibilities, I traveled about 70% of the time around the United States. In addition, I planned a number of conferences each year that were attended by both the Medicare contractors and representatives from HHS.
In the contracts between HHS and the Medicare contractors it was clear that travel and/or out-of-pocket expenses were reimbursed consistent with the annual GSA per diems.
In addition, Medicare contractors were always advised that we should not give the “appearance” that government funds were being spent extravagantly – even if those expenses were paid through private, not government sources of funds, or done as they would be in private business. For example, meetings scheduled in ski resorts in the summer will practically pay for you to come and use their facilities. Hotel rates were about half price and meeting rooms were normally complementary.
Since we were allowed to keep the frequent flyer miles we earned while traveling, often you would try and upgrade your airline seat to first-class with your miles (yes, there was a time when you could do this without giving 3 years advanced notice). However, our colleagues at HHS were quick to tell us that they did not condone us doing this as it “looked bad” for government contractors to sit in a first-class seat even though it was not paid for with tax payer money. (I guess those neon “Government Contractor” signs on our foreheads were a dead give-away!)
And to be clear, the HHS staff, like the staff of all government agencies, were bound to be compliant with the same per diem rates as government contractors. It was not unusual to sit next to the Secretary of HHS in the coach section of the plane.
We’ve recently learned, that Secretary of HHS Tom Price, formerly U.S. Senator Price, was caught using private airplanes for government business. The reporting has alluded to the fact that Price apparently intended to charge the government the full cost of these private plane trips – in excess of $400,000 according to Politico.
It was reported that the Trump Administration declined to receive the usual and customary training given to all new government employees on compliance and ethics. Why is this so important? Contrary to what Der Pumpkin Fuhrer would have you believe, the government does NOT operate like private business. Usual and customary private business practices, like buying drinks for your clients, or flying in a private plane, is simply not allowed.
Even if I were to cut Price some slack for “not knowing the rules,” it’s simply not true that he is ignorant of them. For example, while serving in the Senate, Price was very vocal of a business trip that then HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took in a private plane, even though she received advanced permission to do so due to extenuating circumstances. Price was ready to have Sibelius drawn and quartered for this reckless spending of tax payer money.
Now today, Price comes out and says that he would write a check to the government to cover the cost of his travel on private charter planes. Wow, Tom, this is mighty big of you to cut a check now that you’ve been caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
And in case you or others in the Administration are interested, Mr. Price, you can find the GSA travel per diems here.