Health Services Secretary Faces Travel Inquiry

Members of Congress are looking at whether Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt acted appropriately in using a private jet meant for public health emergencies to promote the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

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MICHELE NORRIS host:

On Capital Hill there are new questions about the use of a private luxury jet by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The jet in question is leased by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health emergencies like disease outbreaks, but according to this morning's Atlanta Journal Constitution, Leavitt has used the jet 19 times this year to visit more than 90 cities and many of those trips were to promote the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

At a hearing this morning, Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis said he finds the Medicare trips an inappropriate use of government resources.

Congressman JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Mr. Secretary, you used the jet to do really public relations for the president, for his confusing and complicated prescription drug plan. I think this is unbelievable, irresponsible and just dead wrong.

ROVNER: Leavitt noted that Congress last year gave him express permission to use the jet. Although the language of that permission refers to public health emergencies, Leavitt told the committee he considers the Medicare trips part of that mandate.

Mr. MIKE LEAVITT (Secretary of Health and Human Services): The job I was given by the Congress and by the president was to assure that seniors had an opportunity to enroll in this and we accomplished it.

ROVNER: A spokeswoman for Leavitt said every trip was cleared with appropriate government officials to ensure it met all legal requirements, but Democrats, who are still simmering over what they see as the administration's attempts to use the new Medicare benefit to Republicans' political advantage, are not likely to let the issue drop soon.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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