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Senators urge OWCP to use special unit to handle firefighters' injury claims

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today |

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has signed a letter urging the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) to expedite the handling of death and injury claims of federal firefighters “in advance of the 2022 wildfire season.”

The federal agency responsible for supporting firefighters when they are injured on the job too often fails to reimburse them appropriately for medical bills and death benefits. A Dec. 13, 2021, article at BuzzFeed News described numerous examples of firefighters who were seriously injured while working, then confronted with huge medical bills.

Some were being hounded multiple times a day from bill collectors demanding money that should have been paid by the OWCP. Firefighters’ credit cards have been maxed out and credit ratings destroyed. Injured firefighters have routinely been reduced to setting up GoFundMe pages and depending on grants from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

A representative for the OWCP told BuzzFeed News that the agency was in the process of developing new procedures and modifying existing policies. For example, a “Special Claims Unit,” which usually handles nontraditional requests, will now adjudicate “all new incoming firefighter claims.”

The Special Claims Unit already existed. The agency’s manual states that one of its duties is handling death benefits for members of the Armed Forces who die “in connection with service with an Armed Force in a contingency operation.” All of these claims for a death gratuity “are to be transferred to [the unit] immediately upon receipt for handling and response.”

One of the causes for the slow response to firefighters’ injury and death claims is a reduction in the number of OWCP claims examiners due to a declining budget over the last few years. The letter signed by the senators does not address their responsibility for appropriating adequate funds to accomplish the mission.

“Federal wildland firefighters have recently reported difficulty getting their medical treatment costs for work-related injuries covered by the government within a reasonable timeframe,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Christopher Godfrey, director of the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs. “This is simply unacceptable – these firefighters put their lives at risk to defend American lives and property, and they deserve our support.”

Feinstein continued, “Your commitment to establish a special claims handling unit is an excellent first step to remedying this situation; we urge you to follow through expeditiously and to focus on handling the claims of both federal wildland firefighters and structural firefighters…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.”

In addition to Sen. Feinstein, the letter was signed by senators Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).