Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Columnist

The U.S. Public Health Service had 10 years to follow congressional direction and adopt a new pay system for members of its Commissioned Corps.

It failed.

Now, thousands of health professionals who work for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but wear uniforms and insignia like the Navy, must go without “special pay” because their leadership screwed up. They provide health care in some of the most remote, deprived and disadvantaged areas of the nation, as well as during disasters.

Their uniforms are an outward manifestation of their pride and commitment to service. But PHS is not responding in kind — not just by messing with the officers’ money, but also through a lack of communication, explanation and apology. The special pay is designed to make the corps, whose positions include physicians, dentists and pharmacists, more competitive with the private sector. In a letter to the Commissioned Corps, Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said the employees might not get their full pay for months.

“Officers may receive temporary reductions in monthly compensation over the next 3-4 months while we transition from the Legacy Pay system to the HPSP (Health Professionals Special Pay),” Adams wrote on Jan. 31. “However, we anticipate special pay will be authorized retroactively from 28 January 2018.”

Adams didn’t apologize and was vague on the reasons for the interruption, citing only “a number of unanticipated events.” Repeated requests for more information from PHS were denied.

Adams said the National Defense Authorization Act from January 2008 was designed “to consolidate and simplify special pay for the uniformed services to be implemented no later than 28 January 2018.”

Starting 10 years ago, PHS formed work groups that made recommendations and proposed options, yet the agency didn’t get the job done. “A policy was drafted and is under review for approval and will be finalized in the next few weeks,” Adams said.

Meanwhile, the officers will suffer. They are upset.

“I can tell you that some officers are decremented as much as $1,700 per month, an amount which is large enough to play havoc with even the most carefully crafted budget,” said Jim Currie, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service. “Many officers are outraged by this event as the Public Health Service leadership has known for 10 years that this would occur on 28 January.”

Furthermore, the Pentagon had a similar requirement to develop a special pay system, Currie said, and “the Defense Department successfully did this and the Public Health Service did not.”

Pentagon spokesperson Dave Eastburn said, “DoD had success because it implemented these changes using a phased approach over the course of nearly 10 years.”

Why couldn’t PHS do that?

The association polled its members this week and found that “the HHS failure is rattling the confidence USPHS officers have in their uniformed service leadership and HHS,” said John E. McElligott, the Commissioned Officers Association’s deputy executive director.

Responses to the online survey revealed the officers’ anger, frustration and disgust with the incompetence and poor communication of PHS leadership, through comments like these:

  • “This is a shameful embarrassment to the US PHS Commissioned Corps. I could barely tell my family about it — it makes us look like the Three Stooges. I’m ashamed. Will accelerate my retirement.”
  • “What has our leadership been doing over the last 10 yrs. There needs to be some accountability for those who did nothing.”
  • “Absolutely egregious! Ten years to fix a problem, and they can’t get it done.”
  • “The pay loss hurts, but more so does the complete lack of communication from our leadership and the absolute ‘ball drop’ on this project with a 10-year deadline! My confidence and trust in the Corps and its leadership is shaken to its foundation…”
  • “I’ve lost trust in this system. I was recently deployed for Harvey, Irma and Maria hurricanes and still haven’t been paid from that yet.”
  • “Very disappointed in the broken trust resulting from abysmal communication regarding the state of special pay.”
  • “What kind of organization cannot act in TEN YEARS?”
  • “This issue has brought extreme stress to my family. I am the only income for a family of 5. We are having to remove my younger two from pre-school and make other life altering changes.”
  • “This lapse is inexcusable. PHS had 10 YEARS to work on this. I can’t recommend PHS to ANYONE as a career. This is a testament to the inadequacy of Corps leadership.”

A statement from HHS said “We understand that the approximately 3,000 officers of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who are impacted by the new Health Professions Special Pay plan are concerned. The special pay will be retroactively restored. We are committed to reestablishing the special pay for those impacted as quickly as possible. For those officers who cannot wait for the special pay to be retroactively restored, we are prepared to assist with banks, creditors and other financial institutions as necessary.”

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