HHS Secretary Price to repay nearly $52G for charter flights, calls move 'unprecedented'

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Thursday that he would reimburse the government for a series of costly charter flights he used to travel to various engagements at taxpayer expense.

Senior department sources told Fox News that the total amount of money Price will repay is $51,887.31. It was not immediately clear if that amount constituted the full difference for flying the secretary's entourage on charters as compared to commercial airlines.

Speaking to Fox News' "Special Report with Bret Baier," Price described the repayment as "unprecedented." 

"[It's] never been done, to our understanding, before by a secretary, in spite of the fact that previous administrations have had secretaries that flew an awful lot," Price told host Bret Baier.

In addition to covering the costs of his previous trips, Price vowed in a statement that "I will take no more private charter flights as Secretary of HHS. No exceptions." 

Speaking to Fox News, Price stated that each of his trips were "within budget" and had been approved by department officials.

"All of these trips were official business," Price said. "All of them were approved by the normal processes that every other administration has gone through prior to the trip, not after. But we've heard the concerns."

Price's statement followed President Donald Trump's public comments Wednesday stating that he wasn't happy with Price's travel. 

"I was looking into it, and I will look into it, and I will tell you personally I'm not happy about it," Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to sell his tax overhaul in Indianapolis. "I am not happy about it. I'm going to look at it. I'm not happy about it and I let him know it."

Price confirmed to Fox News Thursday that he and Trump had "talked about" the flights. 

"As he has said publicly, he wasn’t happy and he expressed that to me very clearly," the secretary said, adding that he was "incredibly privileged" to serve in the Trump administration.

"I look forward to regaining the trust that some of the American people may have lost [due to] the activities that I took," Price said, "and to not only regain the trust of the American people, but gain the trust of the administration and the president."

A former GOP congressman from Georgia, Price also played a supporting role in the fruitless Republican effort to repeal ObamaCare -- another source of frustration for the president.

Prompted partly by controversy over Price, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched a wide-ranging investigation into travel by Trump's political appointees. On Wednesday the committee sent requests for detailed travel records to the White House and 24 departments and agencies, dating back to the president's first day in office.

The letters were signed by the committee's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and its ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Lawmakers are demanding information on use of government planes for personal travel, as well as use of private charters for official travel. The committee wants details by Oct. 10.

Price's travels were first reported last week by Politico, which said it had identified a couple dozen charter flights at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cheaper commercial flights were a viable option in many cases.

On a June trip to Nashville, Price also had lunch with his son, who lives in that city, according to Politico. Another trip was from Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles.

Last Friday the HHS inspector general's office announced it was conducting a review to see if Price complied with federal travel regulations, which generally require officials to minimize costs.

Price's office had initially said the secretary's demanding schedule sometimes did not permit the use of commercial airline flights.

Price, an ally of House Speaker Paul Ryan, is a past chairman of the House Budget Committee, where he was a frequent critic of wasteful spending. As HHS secretary, he has questioned whether the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people delivers results that are worth the billions of dollars taxpayers spend for the coverage. He's a former orthopedic surgeon who once practiced in an inner-city hospital.

Fox News' Serafin Gomez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.