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CDC director’s salary now set at $209,700 instead of $375,000

Robert Redfield, a longtime AIDS researcher, became head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late March. (CDC)

The recently appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, has agreed to take a pay cut from $375,000 to $209,700, putting his compensation more in line with those of previous agency chiefs, federal health officials said Tuesday.

“Dr. Redfield did not want his compensation to become a distraction from the important work of the CDC and asked that his salary be reduced,” said Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC. “Dr. Redfield is being paid in accordance with the formula used to pay the prior three CDC directors. Using that formula, his compensation for this year will be $209,700.”

The longtime AIDS researcher asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar for his $375,000 salary to be cut after a top Democratic senator and others raised questions. His initial pay was almost twice what his predecessor earned and more than other past directors.

Redfield, 66, had an annual salary of $645,676 as a clinician and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The upper end of the basic salary range for CDC director is about $190,000, and Brenda Fitzgerald, the former Georgia health commissioner who resigned from the CDC in late January because of financial conflicts of interest, served for half a year at an annual salary of $193,700, an HHS official said.

Former director Tom Frieden, who has a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health and was the New York City health commissioner from 2002 to 2009, earned $219,700 as CDC director. Julie Gerberding, who served in that position from 2002 to 2009, had an annual salary of $207,000.

Fitzgerald, Frieden and Gerberding all received a “physician comparability allowance,” which is allowed under HHS policy when a “candidate is eminently qualified for the position,” an HHS official said. Fitzgerald received a lower physician comparability allowance because she had not previously served as a government physician for at least two years. Redfield, who is receiving this allowance, was previously an Army researcher and doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Redfield's initial salary also sparked controversy because it was considerably more than that of his boss or of his counterparts at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. The salaries of the HHS secretary, NIH director and FDA commissioner are set by law.

In an April 26 letter to Azar, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked for the justification for offering Redfield “a significantly larger salary” than that of his predecessors and other leaders at HHS.

Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, noted that Redfield was hired under a special salary program. Title 42, as it is known, was established by Congress to attract health scientists with rare and critical skills to government work. It grants federal agencies authority to offer salary and benefit packages that are competitive with those offered in the private sector and academia.

Murray wrote: “It is difficult to understand why someone with limited public health experience, particularly in a leadership role, is being disproportionately compensated for his work as compared to other accomplished scientists and public health leaders in comparable roles within the federal government.”

The HHS announcement Tuesday means Redfield's salary is no longer being set under that program. Days after Murray's letter was published, Redfield asked Azar to cut his pay.

Redfield is well respected for his clinical work but has no experience running a governmental public health agency. He was named head of the CDC on March 21.

Oakley, the HHS spokeswoman, has said that Redfield’s recruitment “was a rare opportunity to hire one of the world’s leading virologists.” She noted his more than 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 infectious diseases of our time — HIV/AIDS.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Redfield supported policies that have raised deep concern among some AIDS advocates because they were not considered sound public health approaches to the epidemic. The critics believe those policies also stigmatized people who were infected and feared being fired — and losing their health insurance.

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