Federal Employees' Compensation Act:

Need to Increase Rehabilitation and Reemployment of Injured Workers

GGD-92-30: Published: Feb 28, 1992. Publicly Released: Feb 28, 1992.

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Nancy R. Kingsbury
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Labor's (DOL) administration of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) Vocational Rehabilitation Program and related rehiring efforts for injured federal workers, focusing on: (1) how long FECA claimants receive compensation before receiving rehabilitation services; and (2) whether opportunities exist to increase the number of injured workers who receive vocational rehabilitation services and return to work.

GAO found that: (1) studies show that initiating vocational rehabilitation services within 6 months after injury increases the likelihood that injured workers will be able to return to work; (2) in the districts reviewed, the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) often took years to refer injured workers for any rehabilitative services; (3) because heavy caseloads are a primary cause of untimely referrals, OWCP has started hiring temporary staff under a 4-year initiative to deal with the existing case backlog and to free existing staff to intervene earlier with new cases; (4) in response to a GAO suggestion, OWCP made a procedural change to allow initial rehabilitation services unless claimants were permanently unable to work at least 4 hours a day; (5) if the review teams OWCP is establishing to expedite the screening and referral of cases for rehabilitation services are effective, it may exacerbate the OWCP work-load problem by increasing the rehabilitation specialists' workload; (6) although OWCP has attempted to deal with its work-load problem by contracting with private vocational rehabilitation counselors, it has not evaluated the cost-effectiveness of this approach; (7) in fiscal year 1990, the $10 million that OWCP paid in contract counselor fees could have funded nearly twice as many in-house specialists as counselors; (8) factors that prevent workers' return to jobs after vocational rehabilitation include changes in the workers' health, a poor job market, a lack of coordination between OWCP and pre-injury employers, and the length of time between the injuries and referral for rehabilitation; and (9) OWCP lacks adequate internal controls to ensure that FECA and Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) funds pay their appropriate shares of rehabilitation program expenses.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 1993, RSA and OWCP each issued bulletins to their respective staffs that describe the processes by which these agencies should renew and revitalize their previous cooperative relationships, such that RSA will provide rehabilitation services to more OWCP claimants. A draft cooperative agreement was prepared for use by OWCP regions and state departments of vocational rehabilitation agencies to formalize their work relationships.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that rehabilitation is being accomplished in a cost-effective manner, the Secretary of Labor should require the Director, OWCP, to coordinate actions with the Administrator, Rehabilitation Services Administration, and explore the feasibility of making greater use of state vocational rehabilitation resources and resolving program differences between state vocational agencies and OWCP.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The OWCP request for additional staffing for fiscal year 1994 has been rejected as part of the administration's budget reduction efforts. As such, it would seem impractical, at this time, to study the feasibility of using permanent or temporary government employees to do the work of contract vocational rehabilitation counselors.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that rehabilitation is being accomplished in a cost-effective manner, the Secretary of Labor should require the Director, OWCP, to determine whether additional permanent or temporary rehabilitation specialists could be hired to do some of the work now being done by contract counselors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OWCP prepared a notice dated April 16, 1993 (DPPS Notice No. 2) and sent it to all rehabilitation counselors that provide services for OWCP. These counselors must meet with the injured worker and the agency within 10 days of receiving the referral to begin the placement process.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should require the Director, OWCP, to devise a way to ensure that rehabilitation specialists and contract counselors establish early contact and coordinate their rehabilitation activities with claimants' pre-injury employers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OWCP analyzed FECA and Longshore statistical workload measures and shifted one FTE from the New York Region to the Philadelphia Region. FECA and Longshore rehabilitation workloads will be monitored annually and adjustments made as appropriate.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should develop an internal control procedure to allocate rehabilitation specialists' costs accurately between FECA and LHWCA Programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor


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