Helping America's poor, aged and sick is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' reason for being, but hundreds of its top officials are traveling in style and luxury at taxpayer expense.
Records obtained by the Washington Examiner under the Freedom of Information Act show that HHS executives spent $31 million taking 7,000 first class and business class flights between 2009 and 2013, including 253 trips for which a one-way ticket cost more than $15,000.
Half the records listed the price of a coach ticket for comparison. For that portion alone, the upgrade boosted the cost by almost $14 million, from $4.9 million to $18.5 million.
Federal employees are allowed to fly business or first class if the flight is longer than 14 hours, but only 1,400 of the 7,000 flights met that description.
For the vast majority of the flights — 5,100 — the government executives upgraded because they claimed they had a medical disability that necessitated it.
Others cited "exceptional security circumstances," that no coach tickets were available, that a non-federal source was footing the bill, that first or business class was "required because of agency mission."
Then-Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took 14 first- or business-class trips totaling $56,000, including flights to and within India and from Paris to Vietnam.
The Food and Drug Administration took 2,000 upgraded trips costing $14 million and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took 3,000 trips costing $11 million. The National Institutes of Health took 1,300 such trips costing $3.5 million.
One flight for the Food and Drug Administration from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles , then to Australia and Germany, is listed as costing $26,469.23, with the upgrade because of a medical disability. A flight to Germany cost $23,000 for the same reason. Another FDA staffer spent an extra $10,000 of taxpayer money to fly first class from San Francisco to D.C.
A flight by FDA inspector David Heiar to India cost $30,000. Inspector Robert Horan flew to Hong Kong at a cost of $21,427 when coach would have cost $5,021. Another inspector flew to Australia for $12,344 when coach was $543.
But over 1,000 trips were for conferences, training sessions, speeches and meetings. An additional 1,000 records didn't have a description of the purpose.
Hundreds of trips were also taken by top HHS officials in the Office of the Secretary.
And the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which manages Obamacare, took 50 upgraded flights, including a trip from Baltimore to a three-day conference in Phoenix where a first class ticket cost $3,000 each way. On another equally expensive trip to Baltimore, CMS' Joseph Fine said first class travel was "required because of agency mission."
CMS officials also flew business class from Charlotte, North Carolina to Charleston, South Carolina for $1,000 each way rather than drive three hours.
Other federal agencies spend heavily on first class travel as well, according to records reviewed by the Examiner, but none for which records were obtained appears to have come close to the 7,000 first class flights by HHS officials during the four-year period.
The FDA's efforts to inspect the sources of American food and drugs, and the CDC's mission to combat the spread of diseases, require more travel than most agencies.
But two departments that also have international missions appear to have managed to do more of their travel in coach. The Department of Defense had 784 first class flights during 2012 and 2013, but that number doesn't account for trips made on military aircraft. The Department of Commerce had 635 during those two years.
HHS did not return a request for comment.