OWCP moves towards recognition of suspected illnesses for wildland firefighters


NWCG photo.

Yesterday, the Department of Labor announced that it has implemented significant changes to the processing of Federal Employees Compensation (FECA) claims submitted by firefighters. FICA can pay medical expenses and compensation to injured workers and survivors, and helps injured employees return to work when they are medically able to do so. The new policy relaxes the evidentiary requirements needed to support claims filed by federal employees engaged in fire protection and suppression activities for certain cancers, heart disease and lung disease. Essentially, to an untrained observer, the new program resembles the presumption of illness policy employed by many fire departments and governments.

The new Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs FECA Bulletin, No. 22-07 “Special Case Handling in Certain Firefighter FECA Claims Processing and Adjudication” published April 19, 2022, lists the cancers and medical conditions for which the firefighter did not present proof that their illness was caused by an accident at work. The requirements to benefit from this new policy are that the condition must be diagnosed by a doctor, that the person has carried out fire protection activities for at least 5 years and that the diagnosis must have occurred no more than 10 years ago. after employment.

If these requirements are met, the employee’s request will be considered “high risk” and will be eligible for expedited processing.

The medical conditions covered are:

  • Cancers: esophagus, colorectal, prostate, testicle, kidney, bladder, brain, lung, oral cavity/pharynx, larynx, thyroid, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, mesothelioma or melanoma; or
  • Hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, or sudden cardiac event or stroke.

To implement the policy changes, the OWCP created a special claims unit to handle claims from federal firefighters. The unit consists of existing staff specifically trained to deal with these issues. The agency also provides comprehensive training to unit examiners on the impacts of policy changes and works with federal agencies including the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security and Interior, to explain changes in policy and procedures.

These two major changes to how the OWCP handles firefighter illness and injury claims seem like monumental improvements if they go as announced. In recent years, the agency’s reputation and service to injured or ill firefighters, or surviving spouses and family members of those killed on the job, has been abysmal. Too often they have been driven to begging for money from GoFundMe just to pay medical bills after being hounded by bill collectors when the federal government failed to meet its legal obligations.

NFFE and IAFF met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh
The NFFE and IAFF met with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh (wearing red tie) and Department of Labor officials in Los Angeles, April 20, 2022, to discuss the handling of firefighter injury claims. NFFE photo.

Some of these changes and improvements are due in part to behind-the-scenes efforts by members of the Basic Forest Firefighters, International Association of Fire Fightersand the National Federation of Federal Employees. Over the past month, they’ve traveled to Washington DC and Los Angeles (at least) to meet with federal officials who can get things done. For example, they met Marty Walsh, the Secretary of Labor, twice. These people deserve your thanks.

One of the causes of the slow response to firefighter injury and death claims has been the reduction in the number of OWCP claim reviewers due to declining budgets in recent years. It is critical that the President and both Houses of Congress follow through and ensure that the agency is appropriately funded so that they can perform their required duties, assisting injured or ill employees on the job.

More information from the Ministry of Labour:

How to File a Workers Compensation Claim (From OWCP):

To file a workers’ compensation claim, you must first register for an Employee Compensation Operations and Management Portal (ECOMP) account at www.ecomp.dol.gov. ECOMP is a free web application. You do not need approval from your supervisor or anyone else at your agency to initiate your FECA workers’ compensation claim. Once you have registered for an ECOMP account, you will be able to file either the Form CA-1 “Notice of Traumatic Injury” (single-event trauma) or the Form CA-2 “Notice of Occupational Disease” (repeated exposure).

Thanks and hats off to Ben.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. See all articles by Bill Gabbert

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