Georgia Congressman Tom Price, and soon to be Health and Human Services secretary, may be running into a bit of a cronyism problem with a plan to transfer his medical business to his wife. Price revealed the decision in a letter to the HHS’ General Counsel for Ethics:
February 2017, I resigned from my position as Managing and General Partner of Chattahoochee Associates and transferred my ownership interest to my spouse. I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of Chattahoochee Associates, unless I first obtain a written waiver, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 208(b)(l).
Here’s why the issue gives the appearance of cronyism. Price’s wife is Georgia state Representative Dr. Betty Price, who happens to sit on the Health and Human Services committee. That committee happens to be one of the busiest committees in the Georgia House, according to its own chairwoman. This means State Representative Price, who was already married to the owner of the business, could possibly be voting on bills which would present a conflict of interest.
But the cronyism issue appears to be something plaguing the Georgia Legislature. The vice chair of the House HHS committee is a dentist, who still owns his own practice. The head of the Senate Health and Human Services committee is a top executive with a company which gets a lot of money from Georgia for Medicaid services. Senator Renee Unterman told 11Alive she had nothing to do with a 2005 contract which benefitted her employer.
The 11Alive Investigators discovered the senator’s dual role while attempting to examine the state’s most expensive agreements with for-profit companies. The state of Georgia adopted a managed care program for Medicaid in 2005, the same year Sen. Unterman took a job with one of the winning bidders, Amerigroup.
“When I went to work for Amerigroup, they already had the contract,” Unterman told 11Alive’s chief investigative reporter Brendan Keefe during an interview in the Senate Chamber in late January…
The chair of the Senate Health & Human Service Committee said she began working for Amerigroup in 2006, which the company confirmed in written answers to our questions. When asked for a firm date of her employment with the state vendor, Sen. Unterman wrote she started working for Amerigroup in September 2005.
State records show Amerigroup became a Georgia Medicaid contractor in July 2005 – which means Unterman went to work for the company two months after it took on one of the state’s biggest vendor agreements.
Amerigroup received a new contract with Georgia last year.
It should be pointed out the Legislature doesn’t hand out Medicaid contracts to businesses. That’s handled by the Department of Community Health. But the Senate is involved in confirming governor appointments to the department’s board, who then decides how the $12B department budget is spent (including Medicaid contracts). There’s an air of impropriety here, even if Unterman had nothing to do with helping Amerigroup make money from the state. There’s too much governmental power involved in this situation, which in turn can help businesses who have great contacts within the halls of the Capitol. Shuffling it from the Legislature to a bureaucracy of unelected officials does nothing. If there’s no real oversight, who knows what’s going on.
This isn’t saying Dr. Tom Price shouldn’t be HHS Secretary, or saying President Donald Trump made a bad pick (Price is a great pick), but giving the business to his wife is troublesome. Why couldn’t he have just sold the business or transferred ownership to someone who wasn’t a relative in the state Legislature? It just points out how the appearance of cronyism reigns supreme in the Georgia government. It’s completely possible there really isn’t cronyism in the state Legislature, but a lot of sheer coincidences involving which company gets what contract and which legislator is on the board. It’s completely possible the Legislature is bound by certain rules to not lobby colleagues to vote for or against proposals which would affect their line of work. The cynic in me says this isn’t the case, and Georgia is rife with cronyism.
There are ways to prevent this from happening, including banning health care professionals in the Legislature from being on health-related committees. They could still write laws which would benefit their community, they just couldn’t vote on it until it reaches the House or Senate floor. Maybe the best way is to figure out how to get the government completely out of health care, and so this type of cronyism won’t exist. The issue there is time, and people don’t always show a propensity for patience.