Horror stories about how firefighters injured on the job are treated by OWCP

They can become a victim a second time

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Tim Hart. USFS photo
Tim Hart. USFS photo.

If you are a federal employee hopefully you don’t know what “OWCP” stands for. If you do, you could have been forced to deal with them, and your experience may or may not have been a positive experience.

Many federal workers have been pleased with the services provided by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, but too many stories from others are truly sickening.

On BuzzFeed you can find articles titled, for example, “Putting ketchup on more than half of these foods is a federal crime — are you guilty?” (for real). But an offshoot, named BuzzFeed News, actually writes serious articles about news of the day. They even have a reporter assigned to cover the White House. Yesterday they published a long thoroughly researched piece about how some wildland firefighters injured on the job have been profoundly mistreated and ill served by the OWCP.

If a firefighter is injured while working, or becomes ill on the job, OWCP is required to do everything they can to make them whole again, including covering medical and rehab expenses so they can get back to work without wiping out their bank accounts.

Their Mission Statement:

"The Mission of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs is to protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job, their families and their employers by making timely, appropriate, and accurate decisions on claims, providing prompt payment of benefits and helping injured workers return to gainful work as early as is feasible."

The BuzzFeed News article describes numerous examples of firefighters who were seriously injured while working, then confronted with huge medical bills. Some were being hounded multiple times a day from bill collectors demanding money that should have been paid by OWCP. Firefighters’ credit cards have been maxed out and credit ratings destroyed. Injured firefighters have routinely been reduced to setting up GoFundMe pages and depending on grants from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Rehab has been discontinued too soon. All because OWCP is incompetent or because their funding has been reduced to the point where they can’t hire enough staff to “protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job.”

One of the more recent, of many examples in the article is what has happened to Michelle Koch Hart, the widow of Tim Hart, a smokejumper who died after being injured on the Eicks Fire in New Mexico in May of this year.

Here is an excerpt from the BuzzFeed News article:

“Today, she’s still battling with federal agencies, trying to prove the facts around her husband’s death to recoup money. It’s been a maze of talking to case managers who send her to different departments, calling 1-800 numbers that lead nowhere, digging up records, and refiling paperwork that apparently never went through. Some of the claims can’t be submitted until the Forest Service investigation into Tim’s death is completed, and she has no idea when that will be. The Forest Service told BuzzFeed News that “reviews of fatalities can be a lengthy process.” This month, she got an unexplained bill from the Department of Agriculture for $1,030, due Dec. 9. She has no idea what it’s for, and when she tried to find out, she said, the agent could not talk to her because she was not Tim.

”  “It’s very traumatizing, lonely,” she said. “There’s no one person in the federal government who is helping me. People don’t know who I should talk to. I have to do everything on my own, but I still have so many unanswered questions. The system is broken.”

“The US Forest Service, which oversees the large majority of the country’s wildland firefighters, has known for more than a decade that its employees have struggled to navigate the workers’ compensation filing system, get claims approved, and have their medical needs paid for, according to the documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. They give insight into how many top officials, including the Forest Service’s current director, were not only aware of these widespread problems, but had been discussing their frustrations about the process internally for years.

“Leadership in the Forest Service failed to do a damn thing to address our issues with OWCP despite us repeatedly asking and offering solutions,” Buddy Byrd, a former safety and occupational health manager for the Forest Service’s Region 6, which spans Oregon and Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “OWCP is a piece of a bigger systemic failure on behalf of the US Forest Service.”

Our take

The federal agencies that employ firefighters and forestry technicians, need to quadruple their efforts to force OWCP to process the claims of the injured quickly and fairly.

They could consider assigning a human resources person to every injured employee who can troubleshoot problems caused by the OWCP. They should not be left alone and victimized a second time for the injury they suffered while serving their country fighting wildfires.

Upon the death of a firefighter the agencies need to figure out a way to quickly produce enough documentation to satisfy the OWCP that they were killed on the job in the line of duty.

Congress needs to appropriately fund the OWCP so they have staff capable of serving the needs of injured firefighters, and their spouses.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben and Tom.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

23 thoughts on “Horror stories about how firefighters injured on the job are treated by OWCP”

  1. A big problem echoed over and over is that every time there is an injury, it’s often the individual’s first experience with OWCP, and usually by themselves.

    So why can’t we train people how to navigate these systems BEFORE they are injured? There isn’t any formal education for federal wildland firefighters regarding OWCP.

    I think we all know the answer, the agency leadership simply doesn’t care. These injuries don’t affect folks sitting in the office, so nothing gets done.

    Sending these injured firefighters to deal with injuries alone and without OWCP training is like tying both arms behind their back in a knife fight.

    Thanks to Brianna and Bill for writing about this important issue

  2. As Smokejumper Bro said 99% of the time it’s the employee’s agency’s incompetence in processing the claim. Having been a supervisor I had to educate myself on how to advocate for my employees. OWCP is actually very helpful if you pick up the phone and make a few calls. Most personnel within my agency had no clue what to do or were able to answer my questions. Once I figured out what CA-(1,2,16, etc) forms needed to be filled out and where to submit them, it went much smoother. Most HR’s do not know where to send the necessary paperwork. If you find a medical provider who is familiar with the department of labor’s process it will also help out tremendously. Jist because they sccept OWCP does not mean they know what they’re in for. They will know how to get any needed referral submitted and will work with the claims coordinator to get things processed. One piece of advice I can give is if you have access to Kaiser’s program: Kaiser on the Job USE IT! You do not have to have Kaiser insurance either. They know how to navigate the DOL OWCP system and services provided are as they would be if you sought treatment on your own. I broke my leg and just happened to call Kaiser and thays how I found out about it.

  3. What an injured employee or surviving relative needs is a sponsor in their corner. The best sponsor is your local US Congressman or Senator. OWCP does not listen to the F.S., it tells the F.S..
    /signed/ District Ranget retired

  4. It is unfortunate that federal agencies are incapable of taking care of their own personnel and rely on outside resources to provide assistance, like the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. How many times do we have to see a go fund me page for support of someone injured in the line of duty before things change? This has been an ongoing issue for years, but no one wants to even acknowledge the problem. OWCP is not there to help you, they are there to process the paperwork. Our own Albuquerque Service Center will also try to provide assistance, but it is usually too little, too late. It is not uncommon to have a claim denied and while waiting for your appeal, a process that can take weeks or months, you are on your own for treatment. I believe that it is so difficult to get assistance for an on the job injury, that many firefighters will instead utilize their own insurance and for those lacking adequate health insurance, may not receive any care at all. I have asked that a nationwide survey of all federal wildland firefighters be conducted to determine what issues and problems are being encountered with OWCP. Without any data, the DOL/OWCP/ASC will continue to say that they are doing just fine and nothing will change. In Region 3 I have repeatedly asked these very questions, but the regional office see it as whining and choose to ignore the problem rather than take a moment to see what issues exist and look to correct them. This will continue, employees will not get adequate care and we will continue to lose employees.

  5. I’ve had friends hurt on the job, and literally the first thing agency leadership says is to “call the foundation.”

    So literally a government employee injured on the job and the GS-15 says to ask for charity.

    I also want to be clear that BuzzFeed is a big, well-respected media organization and while some of their headlines are not serious reporting, it’s no different than CNN or Fox News. BuzzFeed gets over 100 million pageviews per month and their journalists are top-notch. Can’t thank Brianna and her editors enough for spending months on this piece and putting out incredible, investigative journalism.

  6. My heart goes out to you, Ms. Hart. I know it’s hard. Just keep calling them. I worked in R3 and dealt with many of the people in ASC you are working with. Document. Document. Document. They get paid not to help you. So, you might want to get a representative or a lawyer. Lesa Donnelly and Trully Rinckey have represented me. I know it’s expensive, but sometimes it a good idea to have someone to help carry the load. Ms. Hart if you need help, please contact Bill. And Bill if she contacts you could you give her my e-mail address? Thanks!

  7. OWCP is just horrible and it’s not just fire. It’s any fed job with high level physical requirements. There’s no question their personnel exist just to keep claims from being approved. I was a backcountry ranger for NPS and hiked & skied over 40,000 miles (all documented) in my ~45 years. My last year I reported serious hip pain after a hike. Orthopedist said I needed new hip, that that hike had worn away the last bit of tissue over the bone. (Actually, what he said, looking at my xray, was “time to write your memoirs…”.)

    I was seasonal so had no health insurance with NPS though had private policy. Spent two years back and forth, denial after denial with OWCP. They finally wore me down but only because Obamacare came in. I could have the hip done for ~$2,000. Private insurance would have been at least $15,000 – $20,000, which no way could I afford.

    The key is having a doctor who has experience with them and knows how to write the reports such that they use the same language & phrases OWCP looks for and understands (and is often set by court decisions). Posters here are correct that no one in personnel understands how OWCP works. Few attorneys understand or will deal with federal because they realize it just sucks time and OWCP can delay forever. There is almost zero guidance or agency support for anyone injured.

    Friend, though, did have a doc who understood language. We had exact same length of service and mileage. He had both knees replaced with almost no question within months of his report. This is not faking the injury, it’s just knowing the language and format the low-level clerks at OWCP understand to approve it and which overcomes their initial automatic rejection of any claim. They assume you’re faking it.

    It is so head bangingly frustrating. Even after almost 10 years I’m still outraged at not only OWCP but the NPS who, as an agency, gave me zero support (though there were a couple of long-time friends who helped me with jobs that didn’t require walking).

    So, yes, reform is absolutely critical but I’m not optimistic… .

  8. It’s abundantly clear that an injured federal employee must be evaluated by an MD. I’ve had no issue filing paperwork for my employees and having OWCP adjudicate the action on their behalf. I’ll say OWCP has done well. Educate yourself and your employees on policy. I can’t speak to a LODD and how that works. RIP fallen firefighters.

  9. I’ve had the opposite experience, all paperwork filled correctly, immediately ER and then MD evaluation. OWCP continued to delay and screw the employee out of the needed care. It is traumatic for the employee primarily and secondary for us supervisors as we watch this train wreck and the people we love get screwed.

    The safety talk I have with my employees first focuses on no getting hurt because OWCP and our leadership will not take care of them.

  10. Having been on the wrong side of a wc claim myself the absolute best advice i got after it was almost too late is get a “good” attorney. Sure they end up with a cut if it comes to a settlement. But it gets the slow wheels of government moving faster and most importantly it gets you the help you need asap. Playing nice with wc only gets the the injured person screwed more. Its a sad reality that lawyering up is the best way to get help but for now that is the reality

  11. Ms. Hart should hire an attorney, and contact members of Congress to deal with OWCP on her behalf. Her experience sounds like a broken record of how naive the FS is in assisting employees when they are seriously injured or die on the job, and how much contempt OWCP has towards those individuals.

  12. Can anyone tell me if the people at OWCP are federal employees or are some / all private contractors. Thanks

  13. Hi. It’s almost impossible to find an attorney who will deal with OWCP — Federal. State systems, yes. But not federal. They just wear you down. It’s got to be a fairly large firm with staff to handle endless paperwork as well as direct experience with federal system. Also, your claim has to be denied — not just strung along as is often the case. They need an actual denial to act on. There are some good attorneys out there but they charge. You take a gamble that they’ll win and can recover costs. If you lose, you have to pay.

  14. With respect: yours is the exception in my direct experience of, maybe, about 1/2 dozen OWCP cases. All but one were a nightmare. The one exception was an ortho clinic that had a lot of OWCP experience and could write a case such that it had all the magic phrases there to approve the claim. These cases were in two large National Parks with fairly good personnel offices who had handled a number of OWCP injury claims. The cases needed constant advocacy on the part of the park’s personnel office which, over time, faded as well as experience to advise the employee on steps and strategy. The latter were not pursued as needed to a successful claim. In my estimation and knowing the employees involved, each was the result of either a direct on the job injury or a long-term use injury caused by their incredibly physically demanding job.

  15. Good question. When I filed, I presumed they were federal OWCP employees and not contractors. That was about 8 years ago so may have changed.

  16. Office of Workers Compensation Program (OWCP) is a division of the Department of Labor (DOL). They are answerable, as we all are, to the Executive Branch and your personal advocate is your Congressional Representative. When an employee gets injured and requires medical care and recovery, OWCP should assign a caseworker who is the advocate of the employee to the medical providers.

  17. Well, that would be great but, gotta say, was never my experience nor that of my friends but one. I did talk to one of my Congressional aides who just sighed when she heard it was OWCP and said she’d try. Still, nothing wrong with a cheery outlook, hoping for the best but definitely prepare for the worst with the knowledge that you might well end up being the only advocate for your claim. That means constantly bumping your physician, agency & region, and OWCP worker. You can ask to change OWCP case worker and even, with the MD’s permission, your physician.

  18. I disagree with you on this point to certain degree. People in administrative positions who are paid to know/understand systems like this should be our experts to support us when needed. I would assume this would fall under the knowledge of someone with a degree in social work? Maybe hire some folks in that area of expertise. The last thing I want is another admin item to keep me out of the field. Field supervisors belong in the field working with/teaching/mentoring employees. We barely have enough time to train a module up for firefighting before season starts, then add more training that most people will absolutely not retain. To adequately teach and understand that system would surely take a few days. Understand that non type one resources are given a group of 4-10 folks, with the possibility that 50 percent (or more at times) of that group are first or second season. I’ll take less time in the office and more in the field to train my folks to be the safest they can be. I understand where you are coming from and you have one provided a potential solution. Mine is just a bit different. Perhaps it would be worth while to do the training if we weren’t inundated with mandatory aglearns and other various crap that someone is coming up with to justify their job. Or, maybe I’ve just about had it with the agency’s disconnect from those in upper level leadership and the people getting the job done on the ground. Anyways there is my two cents. Rant over

  19. You are 100% correct. The rules constantly change, regulations are adapted or deleted, and there are not enough hours in the day to keep up with the intricacies of the OWCP system. In the USFS, the Albuquerque Service Center (ASC), is supposed to help and assist but rarely provides timely and correct information. The turnover at ASC is also huge, so it is not uncommon to have several people assigned to your case over a long period of time. It is unfortunate that as a supervisor when an employee is injured, they will often ask ‘do you have personal insurance? because that is a better / easier way to go’. Serious injuries often will have support initially, but those efforts quickly drop off and the injured employee is often discharged without adequate follow up, referrals or information. This has been a problem for years. I now tell my employees that if they are going to work with OWCP to open a congressional at the same time. Sometimes it is needed, sometimes not. But the staff at every Senator and Congressional Representative have always said. ‘Call us early, call us often to help with dealing with OWCP’.

  20. You’re right. Not enough time. But there needs to be some decentralization of knowledge when our workforce is spread thin all over the country and taking assignments that scatter them even more.

    Maybe not everyone needs to be an expert, but a few folks on each district could get trained on this stuff and stay current. ?‍♂️

  21. Having dealt with doctors, insurers and providers for many decades: It helps ito have a physician who will drink two cups of coffee, get mad, and write a scalding letter that assigns (1) blame for the injury, (2) responsibility for the costs, (3) medical necessity for the treatment, and (4) probable outcomes (and increased costs to the insurer) if treatment is not given; all in no uncertain terms.
    A letterhead from an attorney, possible even a medical malpractice attorney, on a letter addressed to someone high enough to make a decision or with authority to wake up the underlings can help. Most of our injuries are mighty small to such people, but are mighty big to those at our income level. We need advocates who will follow through and be a real pain if we are not taken care of.

  22. I know exactly what you’re talking about. As a widow of a us forest service firefighter after a long illness, it took 12 years and a due process Federal Tort suit to get a true review (even decision) of my husband’s death. Never enough for them it seems. And once they use the word untimely, no lawyer will want it. That’s even if owcp is wrong about it. Owcp is supposed to do the right thing. They eventually did in my case but what a struggle!

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