Report: HHS chief overuses emergency jet

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says he used a Centers for Disease Control jet to oversee implementation of a new drug benefit and prepare states for a potential flu pandemic.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt defended his extensive use in recent months of a jet leased to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for emergency use.

Leavitt’s explanation for his use of the jet occurred at a hearing Wednesday of the House Ways and Means Committee. Moments earlier, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., had accused Leavitt of using the jet to “do public relations for the president” on the new drug benefit.

Leavitt, however, said he used the plane in an appropriate manner, and he thanked lawmakers for making it available. He said he simply could not have overseen the implementation of the new benefit, plus help prepare states for a potential flu pandemic, without the use of the plane.

“I’m deeply appreciative of the fact that Congress made this available for this kind of circumstance,” Leavitt said.

Lewis cited an article in Wednesday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, which analyzed the Gulfstream III’s flight log and found that the 14-seat aircraft has been used primarily by Leavitt to attend news conferences promoting the new Medicare prescription drug plan and meetings with state officials over their flu pandemic plans. The flights cost more than $700,000 since January, the newspaper reported.

“I think this is unbelievable, irresponsible and just dead wrong,” Lewis said.

Republicans defend Leavitt
The line of questioning by Lewis riled some of his Republican colleagues, who insisted that he was out of order by pressing Leavitt even as his 10-minute limit for questions had expired. The Republicans jumped to Leavitt’s defense.

“It is important that our national spokesman get out there to where the people are,” said Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn.

Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said lawmakers use federal jets all the time when going on fact-finding missions, and he called the criticism hypocritical. The line of questioning diverted attention from the high praise that Republican lawmakers were trying to heap upon Leavitt for the implementation of the new drug benefit. Leavitt told the lawmakers that more than 38 million seniors and disabled now have drug coverage, in part, because of the benefit.

Leavitt told the lawmakers that the newspaper article was accurate. He said he tried to use commercial jets whenever possible, but he said his job was to make sure senior citizens had an opportunity to enroll in the benefit. He said he could not have done all the work he had to do in the last six months without use of the plane.

“The good news is we accomplished the task,” he said.

Since January, Leavitt has taken the jet on 19 trips to visit more than 90 cities, said his spokeswoman, Christina Pearson.

During the same period, CDC officials said they had used the aircraft to respond to three emergencies and conduct three training exercises.

The Journal-Constitution reported that during two emergencies, the CDC was forced to use another plane because Leavitt was using the Gulfstream.

Big cost to taxpayers
So far in 2006, the aircraft has cost taxpayers $2.1 million, with at least $720,000 of that spent on flight hours used by Leavitt, according to CDC and HHS officials.

Last fall, Congress inserted language in the HHS budget mandating that the CDC share its aircraft with Leavitt. The intent was to make sure the plane was available to Leavitt “in times of emergencies and in the days following such emergencies” because of his role in directing public health responses “to significant events,” according to Congress’ conference report on the bill.

The report said Congress expected the airplane to be used “in an economical and judicious manner.”

Before January, Leavitt flew commercial, except after Hurricane Katrina when he used government planes for trips to the Gulf Coast, Pearson told the newspaper.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, was critical of Leavitt’s use of the aircraft.

“It is mind-boggling that the secretary would commandeer for his own personal convenience a jet that is supposed to be used by CDC for public health emergencies,” Waxman said.

However, a spokesman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has authority over the CDC and HHS, commended Leavitt’s work.

“The scope of his work has required extensive travel and might not have been possible without the use of a government-owned aircraft,” said spokesman Craig Orfield.