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Defense Employee Health Support Programs Restored After Weeklong Outage

Department officials said a "previously unidentified contracting issue" led to a temporary suspension of programs designed to help employees cope with substance abuse and other mental health problems.

A program designed to help civilian employees at the Defense Department with substance abuse, mental health and other wellness issues is up and running at least temporarily, following a nine-day unscheduled outage last week because of a “contracting issue.”

According to an email obtained by Government Executive, Federal Occupational Health, an agency within the Health and Human Services Department, ceased its administration of employee assistance programs across the Defense Department on Sept. 1.

“Over the holiday weekend, [the Defense Contract Management Agency] was notified that Federal Occupational Health was mandated to suspend Employee Assistance Program and Wellness and Health Promotion services to all Department of Defense agencies,” the email stated. “We alerted DoD of this notification and DoD is actively working to restore those services. That is all we know at this point in time . . . This unfortunately means DCMA employees cannot access any of those services.”

A DCMA employee told Government Executive that the news came completely without warning, and that officials remained mum even internally about the reason why services were suspended. On Monday, the Defense Logistics Agency said that Federal Occupational Health had restored the services and would continue to administer employee assistance programs for 60 days. A Defense Department spokesperson confirmed such services are back online across the department.

“After a weeklong outage due to a previously unidentified contracting issue, Employee Assistance Program services provided by Federal Occupational Health were restored as of Sept. 9, 2019, for a period of 60 days to allow for DoD components to work out a long-term contracting solution,” the Defense Logistics Agency wrote.

Defense Department Spokeswoman Heather Babb confirmed the outage, and efforts to restore services, in a statement over the weekend, but did not answer questions regarding why employee assistance programs were suspended.

“DoD’s Employee Assistance Program was previously administered through interagency agreements with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Federal Occupational Health agency,” Babb said. “To minimize the disruption in service, HHS has agreed to temporarily resume Employee Assistance Program services to DoD. DoD is developing long-term solutions to provide this important support to DoD civilian employees.”

Although officials at the Pentagon and HHS have declined to explain the reasoning for the suspension, Federal Occupational Health is part of HHS’ Program Support Center, which has been in turmoil since earlier this summer. In July, Federal News Network reported that the Program Support Center was temporarily shutting down its assisted acquisition services, while Bloomberg Law revealed that a number of top officials at the agency were suspended.

One DCMA employee said the suspension of employee assistance program services highlights the importance of getting a plan in place to move away from HHS shared services before the contracts are cancelled. Even a one-week outage could have dire consequences, the source said, particularly when it involves a program designed to help workers with substance abuse or mental health issues.

“Employees I talked to felt like they were being kicked while they were already down,” the employee said. “I’m not aware of any employees currently in rehab or whether there was a break in those services, but I can imagine that if they were due to come in during the last week, after it got cancelled, I don’t know if there was a break or not.”

The employee assistance program provides support on a variety of issues, from medical issues to financial advice and even managing work-related stress. It is particularly important for Defense Department employees, whose employment often depends on maintaining a security clearance.

“What ends up happening is that if an employee has their security clearance taken away, the adjudication authority will let them know, ‘Hey, your clearance has been taken away because we found a report that you were using drugs’ or something like that,” the DCMA employee said. “And if the employee can respond that they’re going to EAP, and here’s the certificate and reports from doctors . . . in the few cases I’ve seen like this it has helped.”