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Posted by Injured feds tell horror stories on June 16, 1999 at 20:18:47:

Injured feds tell horror stories

By Katy Saldarini

Late payments, denied claims, mixed-up files, unanswered phone calls and rude service were among the complaints injured federal employees made about the Labor Department office that handles federal workers' compensation claims Tuesday at a House subcommittee hearing.

The Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) has long been under fire for its track record in administering the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, which allows workers to apply for disability and medical benefits for workplace injuries. At Tuesday's hearing, Thomas Chamberlin, a former FBI agent, said "it took more than 6 mailings, unlimited calls and action by the Secretary of Labor to initiate the filing of a claim" with OWCP. Then, he said, OWCP failed to require the FBI to produce a memo in which agency officials portrayed Chamberlin as suicidal and homicidal.

"It was obvious OWCP had joined in allegiance with the FBI," Chamberlin said. "From their decisions it was clear they did not want to review my case file in its entirety nor would they require the FBI to produce any documents I vehemently pleaded for."

Diane McGuinness, a former Social Security Administration employee, told of a second opinion physician's exam that lasted approximately four minutes, a case file with another injured worker's doctor reports, and threats to deny her claim if she asked her congressional representatives for help.

But not all witnesses had horror stories to share. Matthew Fairbanks, a pilot for the Drug Enforcement Agency, returned to work last week after a plane crash in September 1998 killed his instructor and left him badly burned. Fairbanks praised his OWCP case worker, who arranged for daily nurse visits after he left the hospital, as well as transportation to daily physical therapy sessions. "Everything was resolved on an ongoing, as-needed basis," he said.

OWCP Deputy Director Shelby Hallmark said the office's heavy caseload has been the source of many of its customer service problems. OWCP deals with 250,000 injured workers annually, and each of the agency's employees handles between 8,000 and 9,000 calls per year. Another problem, Hallmark said, is that agencies do not notify the office of worker injuries in a timely manner. Unless OWCP has received notice from the agency, payments on a claim cannot be made.

OWCP has undertaken several initiatives to improve customer service, Hallmark said. The agency is increasing its staff by 10 percent this year. Electronic systems are replacing paper-based communications. By 2000, all new cases will be scanned and processed as electronic documents. The office also has requested funding for its first nationwide training program for all staff in its 2000 budget request.

According to Hallmark, OWCP is shifting its employees' view of themselves from paper pushers to service providers, a process that he acknowledged "is a long-term undertaking."

James Linehan, an Oklahoma lawyer who represents disabled claimants, said OWCP suffers from a lack of accountability. Unlike veterans, who have the right to a federal court review of their disability claims, injured federal workers have no legal option for challenging OWCP decisions, he said.

Linehan also blasted a clause in OWCP regulations allowing the Labor Secretary or any other person chosen by the Secretary to review any federal workers' compensation claim at any time, for any reason. Linehan said this allows OWCP to demand repayment from injured workers or reverse decisions on claims without justification.

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