Senate Democrats and watchdog agencies question the use of a statute to authorize paying Dr. Robert R. Redfield nearly twice as much as his predecessor.
WASHINGTON — The high salary set for the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come under criticism from Senate Democrats and watchdog groups who questioned the use of an exemption to pay him nearly twice as much as his predecessors.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, who became the director in March, is receiving $375,000 a year, a substantially higher salary than the heads of many other government agencies. It was granted under a provision known as Title 42, which gives the department the authority to pay staff more than the approved government rate if the personnel provide a specific scientific need that cannot otherwise be filled.
It was an unusual way to hire Redfield, a longtime HIV/AIDS researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-founder of its Institute of Human Virology, who had years ago expressed interest in the job, several officials said. The provision wasn’t used for his predecessor, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who was paid $197,300 a year until she resigned in January nor was it used for her predecessor, Dr. Tom Frieden, whose salary was $219,700.
The Title 42 hiring authority was created by Congress to give federal agencies, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, the authority to attract world-class scientists and fill gaps in expertise by paying them salaries that are more competitive with the private sector.
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On Friday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote to Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of Health and Human Services who oversees the CDC, expressing concern about Redfield’s salary and questioning the agency’s use of the exemption for such an exceptional rate.
“It is difficult to understand why someone with limited public health experience, particularly in a leadership role, is being disproportionately compensated for his work,” compared to others in comparable government roles, wrote Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee that oversees federal health agencies.
Redfield’s salary is higher than several others, including that of his boss, Azar; Dr. Francis Collins, who runs the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, chief of the Food and Drug Administration. Each of those political appointees receives less than $200,000 a year. Gottlieb, who reported an income of more than $1 million in the year before taking the FDA job, took much a larger pay cut than Redfield did, as did Azar, who reported earning nearly $2 million in his last year at Eli Lilly and Co.
Redfield reported $757,100 in salary and bonuses from the University of Maryland Department of Medicine for 2017 through mid-March of 2018. He also disclosed liabilities of between $100,001 and $250,000 in student loans incurred in 2016; a personal loan with Lending Tree, of between $10,001 and $15,000, taken out in 2016; and a second personal loan, between $50,001 and $100,000 opened in 2017.
Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for HHS, said hiring Redfield was a rare opportunity to employ one of the world’s leading virologists.
“Dr. Redfield has over 30 years of experience as a groundbreaking scientist, academic researcher and clinician who has been a global leader in the fight against one of the most devastating diseases of our time — HIV/AIDS,” Oakley said.
In Friday’s letter, which was also sent to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Murray requested a briefing on the subject.
She asked whether the agency made an “extensive and exhaustive” effort to find a director before deciding to pay Redfield under the special exemption. And she also asked for documentation of those search and recruitment efforts, including the descriptions of the job as a “scientific position.”
Lawrence M. Noble, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit watchdog, also raised questions about the propriety of invoking Title 42 for Redfield. The news of his higher salary under the provision was reported earlier by The Associated Press.
“One of the points behind it was that the agency was not able to get these people unless they paid under Title 42,” Noble said. “It seems somewhat incongruous to have someone who’s been trying to get the job for many years to be paid under it. The CDC has to show that it had to do so to get him, and that it needed him for the job.”
The agencies did not supply the numbers of employees hired under the special statute, when asked about them Thursday.
A report by the Government Accountability Office in 2012 faulted HHS for its use of the Title 42 program. The report said the agency “does not have reliable data to manage and provide oversight of its use of Title 42.” In over 15 percent of the cases examined, the GAO said it was questionable whether people hired under the program were actually performing scientific tasks. In 80 percent of the cases studied, GAO said that HHS did not show that it had tried to recruit individuals for positions before invoking Title 42 to hire new staff.