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VA seeks 'best and brightest' to serve veterans

Cleveland clinic nurse, doctor pay based on experience, qualifications

Jan. 21, 2013
 
Charlie Mathews/HTR
Of the 46 federal employees working in Manitowoc County making more than $25,000, six of the top 13 are at the Social Security Administration office on Mirro Drive in Manitowoc. / Charlie Mathews/HTR

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MANITOWOC — Hiring superior nurses to help those who served in uniform is the ultimate justification for the salaries paid to nurses at the Cleveland Clinic, a Veterans Administration official said.

Today, the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team and HTR Media present another installment of “What We Pay — Your Tax Dollars and the Salaries They Support.”

The focus includes state of Wisconsin and U.S. Government employees working in Manitowoc including several nurses making between $61,965 and $68,265 at the VA clinic on North Avenue across from Lakeshore Technical College.

While the detailed listings of personnel and salaries present how much these public sector workers are paid, HTR Media sought to discover factors influencing pay and job complexity in taxpayer-supported positions.

“We’re always looking for the best and brightest,” said Gary Kunich, public relations officer at the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, which oversees satellite community-based outpatient clinics in Wisconsin.

“We try to give nurses and all employees a career path with leadership opportunities they may not have in the civilian sector,” Kunich said. He said they reward nurses with salaries competitive to civilian counterparts, as well as a federal benefits package that begins on first day of employment.

While there has been no across-the-board general pay increase for most federal employees the past two years, VA personnel can earn step increases based on service longevity and promotions trigger pay raises, Kunich said.

He said the VA offers nurses and other health care personnel comprehensive education support including degree completion that can qualify them for a higher pay range.

Kunich said nurses and nurse practitioners are initially slotted into one of three pay ranges. An internal compensation review board determines adjustments in pay based on experience, academic background and specialty certifications, Kunich said.

Gary Kunz is a nurse practitioner at the local clinic who makes $90,671 with $98,880 the current highest maximum salary for a “Nurse Practitioner 3.”

The three highest paid federal workers in Manitowoc County are doctors at the Cleveland VA clinic, making from $167,595 to $187,690. Kunich said doctors are hired into different salary tiers with anesthesiologists, general surgeons, plastic surgeons and vascular surgeons the highest paid with salaries ranging from just under $100,000 to almost $300,000.

He said the VA often cannot match salaries in the civilian sector but that doesn’t necessarily discourage applicants.

“The vast majority of those who work here truly love what they do ... it is a calling for them,” said Kunich, noting the Green Bay VA clinic is undergoing a significant expansion that will include hiring 100 additional employees, among them 34 nurses.

Complex job

Of the 46 federal employees working Manitowoc County making more than $25,000, six of the top 13 are at the Social Security Administration office on Mirro Drive in Manitowoc.

While manager Patricia Naumann makes $95,459, five staff members make between $68,888 and $82,570.

“Like any other entity, we have specialized qualifications to be hired within particular positions with different salary grades and steps,” said Carmen Moreno, regional communications director for SSA in Chicago.

In essence, the SSA claims representative gather data and make a finding “about individual applicants’ initial and continuing eligibility for all programs administered by the SSA.”

The job description notes the representative’s conclusions and decisions are “normally binding on both the applicant and the agency. Those decisions can result in awards involving the expenditures of large sums of money or denials which may have major adverse consequences for an applicant.”

Among a claims rep’s 20 “Major Duties” are to protect the integrity of SSA programs “through identification, investigation, and resolution of potential program abuse/fraud.”

'Dramatic progress'

Manitowoc County Executive Bob Ziegelbauer served in the state Legislature for 20 years before deciding not to seek an 11th two-year term in the Assembly.

He believes that state of Wisconsin employees’ pay scales are generally in the “modest” range. “It is true that benefits in the public sector are still very strong.”

For example, since the early 1970s, state employees have gotten 16.25 sick days per year and unused sick leave accumulates from year to year. Upon retirement, the state matches a certain amount and the entire balance is converted at the employee’s highest base pay rate to pay health insurance premiums.

He believes the additional health insurance premium and retirement pension contributions now required of state employees, including the 44 in the county making $25,000 or more, represent “dramatic progress.”

“It is fair to say those other elements like sick leave and vacation were probably less of a priority ... it doesn’t mean they will never change,” Ziegelbauer said.

Ziegelbauer said state law changes enacted by the last legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker will result in the years ahead of having wages and benefits in the public sector more closely resembling those in the private sector.

He said some of the state workers benefits he considers too lavish “took 30 years to get out of whack” and getting them more comparable to the private sector can’t happen overnight.

Charlie Mathews: (920) 686-2969 or cmathews@htrnews.com

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