Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is a cosponsor of one of the bills.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is a cosponsor of one of the bills. Shannon Finney/Getty Images

A House Panel Has Advanced Bills Improving Feds’ Access to Workers Comp

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The House Education and Health Committee on Wednesday advanced two bills aimed at making it easier for federal employees to receive workers compensation benefits for conditions developed on the job.

The first and more controversial of the two bills, which still has bipartisan support, is the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act (H.R. 2499). Introduced by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., the bill would establish a presumption that federal wildland firefighters with at least five years of service who develop any one of a number of serious health conditions, including lung diseases and lung, brain and digestive system cancers, did so due to on-the-job exposure to smoke and other hazardous materials for the purposes of securing workers compensation benefits through the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a cosponsor of the legislation, said that qualifying for workers compensation as a federal firefighter is a long and arduous process that often results in failure, due to the fact that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the fateful exposure to dangerous materials occurred.

“Under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, federal firefighters bear the burden of proof to establish causation that an illness is work-related, and they need to identify the specific incidents or exposures that caused the disease for it to be considered job related,” Takano said. “Because their work environment could involve exposure to over 100 chemicals and smoke for each incident, or the repeated exposure from many incidents over time, this presents significant evidentiary burdens. By contrast, most state, local and municipal firefighters already benefit from a ‘presumption’ law.”

Currently, 49 states have similar laws on the books covering state and local firefighters, but not the federal government.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., argued that the bill was premature, given that the Labor Department has begun working to develop a special claims unit to try to expedite workers compensation claims filed by federal firefighters, and introduced an amendment that would delete the text of the bill and direct the Government Accountability Office to study the issue instead.

“The Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs has recently announced program changes to help streamline the process and announced the easing of evidentiary standards for firefighters’ claims of illness from toxic exposure,” he said. “Why are Democrats trying to get ahead of the OWCP? We should see if the special claims unit addresses these concerns before we put more laws on the books. As it stands, the necessity of this legislation is unknown.”

Keller’s proposal incensed Takano, who described it as “dilatory” and noted that a version of his bill has been introduced in each session of Congress dating back to 2001.

“I’d like to remind the members of this committee that these conditions have been thoroughly researched and supported by existing science,” he said. “[Federal] firefighters work side by side with their municipal and state firefighting peers, and it is unfair that federal firefighters are treated differently based solely on their employer. Forty-nine states have established presumptions, and the federal government has not. This bill has been introduced in every Congress since 2001, so if there was a concern about the need for studies, this committee could have requested it at any time in the last 21 years. I’m not sure what another study buys us except delay and inaction.”

The committee shot down Keller’s amendment and sent the underlying bill to the House floor by a 31-18 vote.

Expanding Who Can Provide Care

The second bill on federal employees’ workers compensation came in the form of the Improving Access to Workers’ Compensation for Injured Federal Workers Act (H.R. 6087), introduced by Reps. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich. This bill would expand who can diagnose, certify and ultimately treat workplace injuries and illnesses to include nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.

Currently, only physicians can diagnose and treat workplace injuries and illnesses and be reimbursed under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. Courtney said the status quo is increasingly problematic, given the increase in nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants serving as primary care providers.

“Right now, injured workers can only receive care that they’re entitled to if it’s provided by a physician, and only a physician can certify a claim,” he said. “But as we know, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants over the last 20 years are a growing portion of the primary care and health care workforces nationwide, especially in rural areas. Many patients are perfectly comfortable being treated by NPs and PAs and many may be treated by an NP or a PA much more quickly than by a physician.”

The committee approved the legislation by voice vote.