Top public health officials have collected $25 million in bonuses since 2007, carving out extra pay for themselves in tight federal budgetary times while blaming a lack of money for the Obama administration’s lackluster response to the Ebola outbreak.
U.S. taxpayers gave $6 billion in salaries and $25 million in bonuses to an elite corps of health care specialists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2007, according to data compiled by American Transparency’s OpenTheBooks.com, an online portal aggregating 1.3 billion lines of federal, state and local spending. The agency’s head count increased by 23 percent during that time, adding manpower and contributing to higher payrolls despite relatively flat funding.
From 2010 to 2013, all federal wages were frozen because of budgetary constraints, but CDC officials found a way to pay themselves through bonuses, overtime, within-grade increases and promotion pay raises.
Donald Shriber, deputy director of policy and communication at the CDC’s Center for Global Health, received the highest bonus in the six years analyzed — $62,895 in 2011 — netting $242,595 in take-home pay in a year when wages were supposed to be frozen.
Mr. Shriber was one of 54 employees governmentwide, and one of four in the Department of Health and Human Services, recognized with the Presidential Rank Award for his leadership abilities that year, which accounted for the bonus, said Donda Hansen, a media representative for the CDC.
Kathleen Dunlap, deputy budget director at the CDC, was awarded a $8,000 bonus last year — the highest among her fellow employees. Ms. Dunlap didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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For using budgetary constraints as an excuse for its handling of Ebola while pocketing taxpayer-funded salaries and bonuses, the CDC wins this week’s Golden Hammer award, a distinction given by The Washington Times to highlight waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told The Huffington Post last week that the CDC had been working on an Ebola vaccine for more than a decade but was hampered by shrinking budgets.
Two health care workers who treated an Ebola patient in Dallas have contracted the disease, raising serious questions about the hospital’s procedures. Statistics from the United Nations World Health Organization place the death toll from the Ebola outbreak at 4,447, the vast majority in West Africa.
“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” Mr. Collins told the news site.
His comments prompted a slew of Democratic attacks on Republicans for trying to cut spending and ultimately hampering the ability to fight Ebola.
Battles over budget numbers
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However, the NIH and CDC budgets have remained relatively flat since President Obama took office. In fiscal year 2010, the budget request for CDC funding was $6.31 billion. In Mr. Obama’s latest budget request, funding is set at $5.39 billion, with additional contributions of $809 million expected from the Prevention and Public Health Fund — totaling about $6.2 billion.
Amid stagnating funding, the CDC still handed out bonuses and added 1,888 positions from 2007 to 2013, data show. Employees at the CDC earn more than the federal average.
According to figures kept by the Office of Personnel Management, the average salary for a full-time federal employee working on a permanent appointment was $79,030 as of September 2013, the most recent date for which the figure has been released. The average salary for a CDC employee was $95,015 last year, OpenTheBooks shows.
“Employees at the embattled CDC have been making millions in higher-than-average salaries and bonuses ,” said OpenTheBooks.com founder Adam Andrzejewski. “CDC executives ‘gamed the system’ to increase employee pay through bonuses during three years of the ‘official federal wage freeze.’ CDC officials should be focused on preventing diseases rather than pumping up their salaries.”
Still, CDC doctors make less on average than their peers in private industry. Excluding the public sector, doctors working in orthopedics make the most, about $413,000 a year, and those specializing in HIV/ID the least, averaging $174,000 a year, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report released in April.
A separate database compiled this year by FedSmith.com based on OPM data found that more than 15,000 employees, about 1 percent of all federal workers, earned at least $200,000 in 2013.
Most of the top-paid workers were doctors in the Veterans Affairs Department. The CDC and the NIH were among several other agencies with specialized workforces, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Securities and Exchange Commission, that had larger numbers of employees making $200,000 or more.
Dr. Sherif Zaki, chief of the infectious disease pathology branch at the CDC, had the agency’s highest base salary last year at $260,560. According to the CDC’s website, his work was central to the CDC’s success in responding to outbreaks of Ebola in several African nations from 1995 to 2002, Leptospirosis in Nicaragua in 1996, Nipah virus encephalitis in Malaysia and Singapore in 2000, and West Nile virus in the United States in 2000 and 2002.
It’s too early to tell whether it was money well spent, Mr. Andrzejewski said.
“The CDC’s mission is to protect the health of the nation, but will these highly compensated executives be successful and earn their pay, not to mention bonuses?” he asked.
Excluding Atlanta, where the CDC is based, CDC employees at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, received the largest federal payout of $304 million in total wages from 2007 to 2013, as well as about $640,000 in bonuses.
CDC sites in Cincinnati; Chamblee, Georgia; Bruceton, Pennsylvania; and Morgantown, West Virginia, all had CDC staff earning more than $100 million from 2007 to 2013. They also collectively paid out $1.8 million in bonuses.
CDC’s employee presence and payout nationwide vary.
According to OpenTheBooks, 40 people have been on the CDC’s payroll in Dallas since 2007. They have earned about $3 million, on par with the CDC’s presence in Richmond, Virginia, or Sacramento, California, but significantly less than the agency’s commitment to Fort Collins, Colorado, ($64 million in payouts) or Anchorage, Alaska ($14 million in payouts).