Senator looks into hike in HHS travel costs

Top Republican on the Finance Committee wants to know whether growth in fiscal 2008 represents a trend.

The ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee is pressing the Health and Human Services Department for more information on trends in employee travel in light of an internal memorandum showing an increase in spending on international trips during fiscal 2008.

The memo, written more than one year ago by then-Assistant to the Secretary for International Affairs William Steiger, stated that international travel expenses for HHS rose from $55.5 million in fiscal 2007 to $63.2 million in fiscal 2008, representing an increase of 13.8 percent. The number of travelers went up too, but not at as fast a rate; it increased 6.3 percent, from 10,998 employees in fiscal 2007 to 11,688 in fiscal 2008.

The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health saw substantial increases, both in overall costs and in average costs per traveler.

In a Feb. 17 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Grassley asked for up-to-date statistics.

"While this growth may be attributable to a number of factors, including H1N1, I write to learn whether these trends continued in fiscal 2009 and what you anticipate in 2010," Grassley said.

The memo showed wide variation among HHS agencies in the average cost per traveler. For instance, FDA employees cost the government, on average, $6,992 per international trip, but the cost for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services workers was $4,119 per trip. The document did not analyze the reasons for the discrepancies.

"[The report] raises questions about whether department policies are being followed to make sure official travel isn't any more expensive than it needs to be," Grassley said in a statement. According to the memo, trips to exotic places did not play a big part in the fiscal 2008 increase. Most of the international travel that year was to Western Europe and locations in the Americas. Other possible contributing factors were the use of business-class travel and the length of the trips, Steiger said.

HHS spokesman Nick Papas said the department has received the letter, and "looks forward" to responding.