Federal workers’ compensation payments called wasteful

Charles Dharapak/AP

The law that compensates federal workers for lost pay and medical expenses due to job-related injuries or disease is vulnerable to fraud and should be audited by the Government Accountability Office, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said on Tuesday.

Possible abuses of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act include payments to deceased individuals, recipients who are double dipping through enrollment in other compensation programs and payments to retirees who have no intention of returning to work, Collins said in a statement. "At the U.S. Postal Service, for example, 1,000 employees currently receiving federal workers' compensation benefits are 80 years or older," she said. "Incredibly, 132 of these individuals are 90 and older and there are three who are 98."

Collins complained that the FECA program has no time limits or caps on payments, and can result in a retirement income as much as 27 percent higher than what federal workers receive under the Civil Service Retirement System. She asked GAO to audit the program, run by the Labor Department and dating back in some form to 1916, to compare its records against the Social Security Administration's Death Master File and the governmentwide civilian payroll database, as well as compare the program's management to best practices at state worker compensation programs.

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service told Government Executive, "We support Senator Collins' effort to address this issue."

FECA provides workers' compensation coverage to some 2.8 million federal civilian workers, including postal workers, though official estimates put the number of those who face continuing obstacles to returning to work at less than 50,000. According to Labor, about 7,200 claimants have been judged to have no potential to return to work and are over age 65. Besides pay for lost wages and health care, the program covers rehabilitation, assistance in returning to work and survivor benefits. Eligible workers who retire can choose whether to stick with FECA or use the Office of Personnel Management's system.

Shelby Hallmark, director of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, said his office already conducts "rigorous top-to-bottom reviews" and cross-matching audits to protect against inappropriate or duplicate payments. "Sen. Collins is pointing to a statutory issue -- the FECA does not impose any dollar or temporal caps on eligibility, and as long as an individual can produce probative medical evidence that he or she is disabled based on a work-related injury or illness, that person can continue to receive ongoing FECA benefits," he said. President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget contained a commitment from the administration to work with Congress on a solution, but no action was taken.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she has no problem with a GAO review to ferret out deceased recipients or double dippers, but "it is neither fair nor appropriate to put in that same category cases in which individuals were injured and permanently disabled as a result of their federal service and who legally continue to receive FECA payments at an advanced age…. The reality is that because of their injury, these individuals lost not only the opportunity to work but the chance to save for their retirement as well."

Beth Moten, legislative and political director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said that "reviews should be comprehensive and consider why the programs exist in the first place." She suggested, for example, including "a comprehensive analysis of why Transportation Security Administration officers incur on-the-job injuries at a much higher rate than other federal employees."

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