Forest Service Northern Region

Lawmakers Urge the Labor Dept. to Expedite Workers Compensation Claims from Federal Firefighters

A bipartisan group of senators said federal wildland firefighters struggle to get medical treatments for work-related injuries paid for by the government.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday urged the Labor Department to do more to ensure that federal firefighters’ workers compensation claims are processed quickly.

In a letter, a group of six senators led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Christopher Godfrey, director of the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, to establish a “special claims unit” to quickly handle federal firefighters’ workers compensation claims, something Godfrey said he would do in congressional testimony last year. Currently, the process is difficult and time consuming to navigate, leading injured firefighters to resort to other avenues to pay medical bills.

“Federal wildland firefighters have recently reported difficulty getting their medical treatment costs for work-related injuries covered by the government within a reasonable timeframe,” they wrote. “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.”

Additionally, the lawmakers said that the current system fails to compensate firefighters for chronic conditions that stem from long-term exposure to smoke and fire-suppressant chemicals.

“We are similarly concerned that claims from firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers or other long-term illnesses associated with firefighting activities are simply refused,” the senators wrote. “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.”

As the Labor Department works toward establishing the new claims unit, the senators asked that officials ensure the unit takes into considerations the unique elements of firefighting that increase the likelihood of developing long-term medical conditions.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees endorsed the plan to develop a special unit to handle firefighters’ workers compensation claims, particularly as wildfire seasons grow longer and more dangerous.

“In recent years, we have experienced tremendous growth in the size and scope of wildland fires across the country,” said NFFE National President Randy Erwin. “As anticipated, this has led to an increase in the number and severity of injuries for federal firefighters. Even before fire seasons became year-round disasters, federal firefighters have had extreme difficulties in receiving compensation and health care for injuries sustained while on the job. Far worse, too many of our courageous public servants have had their claims flat out denied by the government whose lands and property they bravely protect.”