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House passes federal workers’ comp bill

Legislation would make program more accountable, provide greater support to employees with injuries related to terrorism.

This story was updated with vote results.

The House on Tuesday passed legislation that aims to provide greater support for some feds injured on the job and to make the workers' compensation program more accountable.

The bipartisan bill (H.R. 2465) would streamline the claims process for those workers who sustain a traumatic injury in a designated armed conflict zone, label injuries sustained due to terrorism as war-risk hazards, and provide $6,000 in benefits for funeral expenses and $50,000 in compensation for facial disfiguration. It also would permit physician assistants and nurse practitioners to certify disability for traumatic injuries and ensure that they are reimbursed for their services. In addition, it would allow the Labor Department, which administers workers' compensation, to verify federal employees' salaries against Social Security Administration data and to collect administrative fees from employing agencies.

"Reform of the federal workers' compensation program is long overdue," said House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., in a statement. "I am grateful for the time and effort my colleagues on both sides of the aisle invested in advancing this responsible legislation. I hope this represents not only a first step toward modernizing the Federal Employees' Compensation Act, but also a renewed effort to work together in pursuit of meaningful solutions that better serve both workers and taxpayers."

The 1916 Federal Employees' Compensation Act provides compensation for wage loss and medical care for those injured or killed on the job, helps employees return to work, and pays benefits to survivors. It covers 2.7 million federal employees and postal workers, and paid out $1.9 billion in wage-loss compensation, impairment and death benefits, and $898 million in medical and rehabilitation services and supplies during the 2010 chargeback year, which ended on June 30, 2010. The funds are paid out of the Employees' Compensation Fund, and most agencies repay the money. Benefits have remained relatively stable at those levels during the past decade, and administrative costs for operating the program account for about 5 percent of expenditures.

Many have criticized FECA, saying it is too generous and should be reformed so that employees receive lower benefits and return to work faster. The law has not been amended since 1974.

Under FECA, employees disabled on the job can receive 66 2/3 percent -- or 75 percent for those with dependents -- of their basic salary tax-free, plus medical-related expenses. The 66 2/3 percent rate is comparable to most state systems, but many federal recipients, including those past retirement age, receive the 75 percent compensation rate. There is no age limit for receiving FECA benefits.

On the Senate side, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a postal reform bill earlier this month that includes provisions related to FECA. One measure, taken from legislation Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced in February, would convert employees on workers' compensation to the appropriate retirement system when they reach retirement age. It also sets the maximum compensation rate at 66 2/3 percent in most instances. Labor has recommended a uniform compensation rate of 70 percent for all claimants.