During a Sept. 18 hearing, lawmakers examined benefits for civilian federal employees from agencies ranging from the departments of Commerce and Energy to the departments of Defense and State who are already serving in Iraq -- many of whom have been injured or even killed.
Since 2004, the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs has received 194 Federal Employees' Compensation Act claims for federal workers in Iraq, resulting in a total payout of $1.7 million in medical and death benefits and lost wages, the agency's Director Shelby Hallmark told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
"While the challenge of getting personnel other than the military to deploy into theatre is multifaceted, the issue of pay and health care for civilians operating in (warfare) is a major factor affecting the government's ability to recruit qualified personnel," ranking member Todd Akin, R-Mo., said.
Under FECA, federal employees with no dependents are entitled to benefits for lost wages paid at two-thirds of their salary tax-free. That level increases to three-fourths if they have at least one dependent.
Of the claims filed from federal employees in Iraq, the majority arose from armed conflict or routine accidents and exposures. There also were 11 claims for emotional conditions and four claims for traumatic brain injuries.
Of the claims filed, 56 were denied because of the lack of medical evidence to show the condition was sustained or to establish a causal connection between the performance of duty and the diagnosed medical condition, Hallmark said.
DEFINING PERFORMANCE OF DUTY
One thing stakeholders questioned was whether civil servants in dangerous areas are considered to be constantly in the performance of duty. Subcommittee Chairman Vic Snyder, D-Ark., wanted to know, for example, if a federal employee would still be entitled to FECA benefits if he were hit by mortar round in the middle of a basketball game in Iraq.
Hallmark responded that, with any federal workers' comp case, it depends on individual circumstances and case law.
Democrats on the panel weren't pleased with that reply. Snyder and Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., said that because federal employees are in constant jeopardy, there should be no question as to whether they are entitled to FECA benefits while overseas.
Andrews went a step further, saying he plans to include language in a bill on medical care that the committee is drafting to provide wounded overseas federal employees an ombudsman or advocate for their cases.
If federal employees who have been deployed to Iraq can't work at all and they only get 75 percent of their salary, then the government should have to prove it wasn't job-related instead of the other way around, Andrews said.
"In the green zone, every moment you're at risk," he added.
DEPLOYED DOD EMPLOYEES
DOD and State have launched a "capabilities-based approach" to meet requirements for Provincial Reconstruction Teams, on which federal employees from multiple agencies serve when they volunteer for rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patricia Bradshaw, DOD deputy undersecretary for Civilian Personnel Policy, noted that 1,000 civilian DOD employees have volunteered their services in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"(We are working on initiatives) focusing on interagency building and the need for every federal employee to see themselves as involved in national security," she told the panel.
Bradshaw emphasized that federal civilian employees and contractors receive the same medical attention as military members do in the course of duty. They can choose treatment at a military medical facility or a private sector one, with the OWCP covering the cost of care.
The Government Accountability Office also took a look at compensation for deployed DOD civilian employees and recommended DOD establish an oversight and quality assurance mechanism to ensure all components of the department fully comply with policies regarding the health care and protection of DOD civilian employees. Bradshaw said the department implemented a system for that purpose in February.
MELISSA TURLEY is a writer in the Washington bureau of cyberFEDS® Web site, a service of LRP Publications, the parent company of Risk & Insurance®. This story first appeared in cyberFEDS®.
November 1, 2007
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