Senators urge the OWCP to use special unit for handling injury claims of firefighters

Numbers Fire Nevada wildfire Carson City Minden
Numbers Fire, Nevada, July 6, 2020. Photo by Tallac Hotshots.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has signed a letter urging the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) to expedite the handling of death and injury claims of federal firefighters “in advance of the 2022 wildfire season.”

As we wrote on December 14, 2021, the federal agency responsible for supporting firefighters when they are injured on the job too often fails to reimburse them appropriately for medical bills and death benefits. A December 13, 2021 article at BuzzFeed News described 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 the 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.

A spokesperson for the OWCP told BuzzFeed News that the agency was in the process of developing new procedures and modifying existing policies. For example, a “Special Claims Unit,” which usually handles nontraditional requests, will now adjudicate “all new incoming firefighter claims.”

The Special Claims Unit already existed. The agency’s manual states that one of its duties is handling death benefits for members of the Armed Forces who die “in connection with service with an Armed Force in a contingency operation.” All of these claims for a death gratuity “are to be transferred to [the unit] immediately upon receipt for handling and response.”

One of the causes for the slow response to firefighters’ injury and death claims is a reduction in the number of OWCP claims examiners due to a declining budget over the last few years. The letter signed by the Senators does not address their responsibility for appropriating adequate funds to accomplish the mission.

“Federal wildland firefighters have recently reported difficulty getting their medical treatment costs for work-related injuries covered by the government within a reasonable timeframe,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Christopher Godfrey, director of the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs. “This is simply unacceptable – these firefighters put their lives at risk to defend American lives and property, and they deserve our support.”

Feinstein continued, “Your commitment to establish a special claims handling unit is an excellent first step to remedying this situation; we urge you to follow through expeditiously and to focus on handling the claims of both federal wildland firefighters and structural firefighters…Given the urgency of the wildfire situation in the western United States, we request an update as to the status of this special claims handling unit at your earliest convenience.”

In addition to Senator Feinstein, the letter was signed by Senators Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The complete text of the Senators’ letter is below:


February 14, 2022

Mr. Christopher Godfrey
Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs
Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Director Godfrey:

We urge you to expedite the establishment of a special claims unit to handle firefighter compensation claims so that it can be in place before the start of the 2022 fire season. As you noted in your testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor on December 2, 2021, federal firefighters who file claims with your office are facing many challenges, and it is our understanding that firefighters are sometimes unable to obtain compensation for their medical treatment, especially those who assert long-term illnesses attributable to their work.

As you know, wildfires in the West are becoming larger, more frequent, and increasingly hazardous. In 2021, the wildland firefighting national preparedness level was raised to its highest level on July 14 – the earliest date in a decade and the second earliest date in history – and required the active deployment of more than 80 percent of the nation’s wildland firefighting crews. We expect this trend to continue, requiring federal firefighters to be engaged for longer periods of time each year combating increasingly dangerous fires. As a result, firefighters will likely sustain more work-related injuries and will increasingly be exposed to conditions that can lead to long-term illness and injury.

Federal wildland firefighters have recently reported difficulty getting their medical treatment costs for work-related injuries covered by the government within a reasonable timeframe. These firefighters, facing bankruptcy, have been forced to seek assistance from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation or private fundraisers to pay their bills while they await reimbursement. We are similarly concerned that claims from firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers or other long-term illnesses associated with firefighting activities are simply refused. They are told that, because they cannot definitively prove the link between the illness and their job exposure, the federal government will not cover their medical expenses. This is simply unacceptable – these firefighters put their lives at risk to defend American lives and property, and they deserve our support.

Your commitment to establish a special claims handling unit is an excellent first step to remedying this situation; we urge you to follow through expeditiously and to focus on handling the claims of both federal wildland firefighters and structural firefighters. This new unit should ensure its examiners are aware of the particular risks facing firefighters and provide clear rationales for rejected claims to ensure that claims processing is efficient, accurate, and transparent. Given the urgency of the wildfire situation in the western United States, we request an update as to the status of this special claims handling unit at your earliest convenience. Thank you for considering our request, and we look forward to working with you to support the important work of our federal firefighters.

Sincerely,

Dianne Feinstein
U.S. Senator

Alex Padilla
U.S. Senator

Susan M. Collins
U.S. Senator

Jacky Rosen
U.S. Senator

Ron Wyden
U.S. Senator

Thomas R. Carper
U.S. Senator

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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.

9 thoughts on “Senators urge the OWCP to use special unit for handling injury claims of firefighters”

  1. OWCP has been terribly understaffed for a very long time. I retired in 2009 and it was terrible then. I’m guessing that the folks in charge will simply add existing OWCP employees to the Special Claims Unit and have them focus just on fire, thereby making their response even slower for the rest of the Federal workforce. If Diane and crew really want to help, they’ll push their friends in the House to include adequate funding in the next budget bill so that OWCP can develop the staffing necessary to process all claims.

  2. Don,
    I had a friend who injured his leg and because an MRI wasn’t approved initially by OWCP they missed a broken ankle. After OWCP approved the claim, then an MRI was conducted and found the broken ankle, and the options were either to have another surgery (delaying recovery) or to just walk and grind off the scar tissue in his ankle.

    Why can’t they just approve the claim initially (maybe have supervisor approve that it’s work related) and if later it’s found that the claim wasn’t valid then they can recover the funds from the individual?

    There needs to be some way to speed up the approval process because with these traumatic injuries, the care needed is immediate.

  3. Yes, and to include claims having to do with mental health impacts to include PTSD. All the talk about parity , mental health and physical health needs to be put into action.

  4. With all due respect to those that are suffering and not seeing their claims taken seriously, having bills for care delivered to their home for an injury sustained at work – I sincerely agree that this is not an ISSUE, nay, it is an EMERGENCY. And has been. For years. Decades. And I am sorry that this EMERGENCY continues. I am enraged and disgusted that my fellow forestry technicians acting as firefighters are going through this and will continue to go through this.

    To the legislators and the public at large:

    Stop bullsh!ting and start funding. OWCP already had special claims. Nothing new here. They were short staffed and underfunded. Now there is a problem that isn’t being discussed! Imagine that! Funding is the elephant in the room! (Amongst other elephants of course – EMERGENCIES like affordable housing, equitable pay, a healthcare system that is in ruins) It gets much worse before it gets better with this approach. As long as some of us can get to another planet we can afford to burn, rape, and leave everyone and everything that exists on earth behind.

    Thank you for your time.

  5. Unfortunately, wildland fire career paths are not for the faint of heart. It seems that everything is a struggle and uphill battle for employees. I have been employed as a wildland fire fighter for 14 seasons (starting my 15th). I have had my own struggles and experiences not too different from every other fire fighter. My experience with OWCP has not been positive. The root of the issue is how times and society has changed in wildland fire fighting.
    Everyone deserves more pay, more time off, and functional system from hiring date to retirement. My opinion is fire and fuels management could learn a lot from functional military systems. Not every system is perfect. However, military veterans can be treated immediately for line of duty accidents and injuries. Veterans can visit the VA for many needs. Disability pay is in line with length of duty and bodily injuries. Many folks can have a 20-year military career and step into a second line of federal employment. I am not comparing wildland fire fighting with getting shot at and serving your country oversees. I am just paralleling a similar line of work as an example and various conveniences given to those who serve.

  6. Normally I would not advocate wildland firefighters taking their employer to court, but there are examples of such actions that have moved the need forward along the arc of justice. I don’t blame the employees who work at DOL, because most of them did not create the system that they work in, but the system is broken. I am sure that American citizens do not feel that wildland firefighters who have been injured or suffered life altering injuries doing what they were hired for and trained to do would think that the current situation is acceptable. In most cases it is not good to “meet pain with pain” but if a law firm can inflict a fraction of the pain that our fellow firefighters have suffered from the unnecessary additional trauma piled upon them by OWCP, then so be it.

    A couple of law firms that represent injured federal employees. There are several more an Internet search away. Maybe one of them is willing to take on the fight?

    https://www.fedemploymentlaw.com/owcp-federal-workers-compensation/

  7. This is good advice. Recently had a peer tell me that in one egregious recent case he advised his injured employee to seek legal assistance via the Wildand Firefighter Foundation (https://wffoundation.org/) and they were able to hook the employee up with a lawyer that loosened the bureaucratic mess and got them the care that they needed.

    The only other advice that I’ve seen work: CONTACT YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES!

    Current ongoing injured firefighter case that I am aware of: life-altering injuries to a firefighter, unfortunately rhymes with a lot of the tales that you hear – delayed or unpaid bills that stack up for 6+ months, runarounds on whether treatments are needed, generally adding to the pain and suffering, mental health issues just from process and the fact that we as their employer (USFS) are powerless to help them, etc. The most significant thing that the employee did that finally started to help – contacting their federal Senator.

    Good to see the proposed legislation as I do believe that the only way this ever gets fixed is for Congress to mandate change and to provide a funding boost to make it actionable.

  8. Yes twistedpfister – “…provide a funding boost to make it actionable.”

    However – as the author of this article mentions:

    “The letter signed by the Senators does not address their responsibility for appropriating adequate funds to accomplish the mission.”

    Given that – Im not assured this is getting fixed. Legal action is a way to collectively make that pain felt by those that need to feel it – those that without lawsuit settlements are isolated from it.

    The quittin’ times they are a coming…and if enough just get up and walk away the public will feel the pain. Then elected officials will feel the pain. Then real change is actually possible.

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