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Shaheen calls for HHS secretary to reveal source of money for N.H. trip

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks during a listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in June 21, 2017. AP file



Monitor staff
Thursday, September 21, 2017

The announcement that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was visiting a small Seacoast city last week caught some in New Hampshire by surprise.

The Somersworth city manager wasn’t alerted ahead of time that a member of the president’s Cabinet would be just down the road, according to executive assistant Brenda Breda. No invitation had been extended, and the city manager wasn’t sure whether the police department had been contacted.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen had less than 24 hours’ notice of the visit, about the same notice the public received before Price landed at Pease International Airport on Sept. 14, according to spokesman Ryan Nickel. Now, the senator is calling on the secretary to release how, exactly, his trip to the Granite State was funded, after it was reported that Price took private jets on five separate flights for official business, including his jaunt here.

“Secretary Price has an obligation to immediately disclose the funding source and all of the costs associated with his use of private jets,” Shaheen said. “As Secretary Price spearheads the Trump administration’s ongoing lobbying efforts to repeal health care that millions of Americans depend on, while defunding efforts to make the public aware of health care enrollment availability, Secretary Price has a responsibility to be fully transparent with the American people.”

In Somersworth, Price visited Goodwin Community Health, where he announced $1.7 million would be awarded to 10 New Hampshire health centers “to support expansion and integration of mental health services and substance abuse services,” according to a press release. Among the recipients was the city of Manchester, with a population of 110,000 people. But rather than land at the Manchester’s airport and make his announcement in the state’s largest city, Price chose to touch down at Pease and drive 20 miles to a city with a population of 11,700.

Politico reported that Price’s flights between Sept. 13 and 15 took him to a resort in Maine where he participated in a Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO, and to community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to internal HHS documents.

Estimates on how much Price may have spent differ, but sample round-trip fares for a United flight ranged from $447 to $725 per person, according to Politico.

By contrast, the cost of chartering the plane was roughly $25,000, according to Ultimate Jet Charters, which owns the Embraer 135LR twin jet that ferried Price and about 10 other people to the clinic event.

Shaheen said she was concerned that the trips were publicly funded.

“Commercial transportation could have easily accommodated the travel cited in this report, particularly his trips to New Hampshire and Philadelphia. If it is determined that taxpayer funds were used for this travel, Secretary Price should reimburse the Treasury,” her statement read.

Price’s visit wasn’t a surprise to the people at Goodwin, who had more than a week’s notice that the secretary was coming. Travis Morin, marketing and events coordinator for Goodwin Community Health, said Price’s team reached out to Goodwin on Sept. 4 with a phone call to Goodwin CEO Janet Laatsch.

Within a day or two, the plan was set, Morin said, and stakeholders, such as Laatsch, doctors at the center, and a patient who is going through Goodwin’s recovery program were in place to tour the facility, hold a roundtable discussion and attend Price’s press conference.

Goodwin wasn’t asked to pay anything for Price to attend, Morin said.

Price’s decision to visit Goodwin wasn’t surprising at all to Morin. The facility, which bills itself as taking a holistic approach to health and combating the opioid crisis, has hosted recent visits from Sen. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

“We’re probably one of the more well-known faces when it comes to the opioid crisis,” Morin said. “We enjoy being able to have the work Goodwin is doing for the community in the forefront of the conversation.”

But the city’s political leader felt different.

Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard said he had to weigh whether to take time away from his job at Somersworth Middle School to attend Price’s visit. In the end, he said, he decided it wasn’t worth it and expressed skecticism that the grant money would have any lasting impact on his city.

“I’m not going to waste my time on rhetoric or empty promises,” he said. “In the Hilltopper/Granite State fashion, we are more impressed with people who deliver. Titles and motorcades don’t impress; delivery and hard work do.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)