Issue Briefs

Following is an excerpt from a recent GAO report finding that benefits often vary for federal employees who are deployed overseas in their civilian capacities.

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Although policies concerning compensation for deployed civilians are generally comparable across agencies, we found some issues that affect the amount of compensation they receive–depending on such things as the agency’s pay system or the civilian’s grade/band level–and the accuracy, timeliness, and completeness of this compensation.

Specifically, two deployed civilians with comparable salaries who work under different pay systems could receive different overtime pay because the overtime rate is determined by the employee’s pay system and grade/band level. For example, NSPS supervisors, who are paid salaries equivalent to those of GS-12 step 1 supervisors, receive their normal hourly rate for overtime hours, while GS-12 step 1 supervisors receive 1.14 times their normal hourly rate for overtime. As a result of this and other variations in policy–such as how deployment status affects the receipt of locality pay–deployed civilians at equivalent pay grades who work under the same conditions and face the same risks may receive different compensation. The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Armed Services Committee recommended that OPM develop a benefits package for all federal civilians deployed to war zones, to ensure that equitable benefits are received by deployed civilians. But OPM has not developed such a package or provided legislative recommendations. OPM officials stated that DOD had initiated an interagency working group to discuss compensation issues and that this group had developed some proposals for legislative changes. However, these proposals have not yet been submitted to Congress and do not, according to DOD officials, represent a comprehensive package for all civilians deployed to war zones, as recommended by the Subcommittee. Furthermore, compensation policies were not always implemented accurately or in a timely manner. For example, we project that approximately 40 percent of the estimated 2,100 civilians deployed from January 1, 2006, to April 30, 2008, experienced problems with compensation–including not receiving danger pay or receiving it late, for instance–in part because they were unaware of their eligibility or did not know where to go for assistance to start and stop these deployment-related pays. In fact, officials at four agencies acknowledged that they have experienced difficulties in effectively administering deployment related pays, in part because there is no single source delineating the various pays associated with deployment. As we previously reported concerning their military counterparts,[Footnote 15] unless deployed personnel are adequately supported in this area, they may not be receiving all of the compensation to which they are entitled. Additionally, in January 2008, Congress authorized an expanded death gratuity–under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA)–of up to $100,000 for deaths resulting from injuries incurred in connection with service with an armed force in a contingency operation. Congress also gave agency heads discretion to apply this gratuity retroactively for any such deaths occurring on or after October 7, 2001, as a result of injuries incurred in connection with the employees’ service with an armed force in Iraq or Afghanistan.[Footnote 16] At the time of our review, Labor–the agency responsible for the implementing regulations under FECA–had not yet issued its formal policy. Labor officials told us that, because of the recent change in administration, they could not provide us with an anticipated issue date for the final policy. Officials from the six agencies included in our review stated that they were delaying the development of policies and procedures to implement the death gratuity until after Labor issues its policy. As a result, some of these agencies have not moved forward on these provisions. We are recommending that (1) OPM oversee an executive agency working group on compensation for deployed civilians to address any differences and if necessary make legislative recommendations; (2) the agencies included in our review establish ombudsman programs or, for agencies deploying small numbers of civilians, focal points to help ensure that deployed civilians receive the compensation to which they are entitled; and (3) Labor set a time frame for issuing implementing guidance for the death gratuity. We provided a copy of the draft report to the agencies in our review. With the exception of USAID, all of the agencies generally concurred with these recommendations. We address USAID’s comments, along with issues raised by the other agencies, in detail later in this report.

Although agency policies on medical benefits are similar, we found some issues with policies related to medical treatment following deployment, and with the implementation of workers’ compensation and post- deployment medical screening, that affect the medical benefits of these civilians. Specifically, DOD and State guidance provides for medical care of all civilians during their deployments. On the other hand, while DOD guidance provides for care at military treatment facilities for all DOD civilians–under workers’ compensation–following their deployments, the guidance does not clearly define the "compelling circumstances" under which non-DOD civilians would be eligible for such care. Because DOD’s policy is unclear, confusion exists within DOD and other agencies regarding civilians’ eligibility for care at military treatment facilities following deployment. Furthermore, officials at several agencies were unaware that civilians from their agencies were potentially eligible for care at DOD facilities following deployment, in part because these agencies had not received the guidance from DOD about this eligibility. Because some agencies are not aware of their civilians’ eligibility for care at military treatment facilities following deployment, these civilians cannot benefit from the efforts DOD has undertaken in areas such as post traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, civilians who deploy are also eligible for medical benefits through workers’ compensation if Labor determines that their medical condition resulted from personal injury sustained in the performance of duty during deployment.[Footnote 17] Our review of all 188 workers’ compensation claims[Footnote 18] related to deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan that were filed between January 1, 2006, and April 30, 2008, found that Labor requested additional information in support of these claims in 125 cases, resulting in increased processing times that in some instances exceeded the department’s standard goals for processing claims.[Footnote 19] Twenty-two percent of the respondents to our survey who had filed workers’ compensation claims stated that their agencies provided them with little or no support in completing the paperwork for their claims. Labor officials stated that applicants failed to provide adequate documentation, in part because they were unaware of the type of information they needed to provide. Furthermore, our review of Labor’s claims process indicated that Labor’s form for a traumatic injury did not specify what supporting documents applicants had to submit to substantiate a claim.[Footnote 20] Specifically, while this form states that the claimant must "provide medical evidence in support of a disability," the type of evidence required is not specifically identified. Without clear information on what documentation to submit in support of their claims, applicants may continue to experience delays in the process. In addition, DOD requires deploying civilians to be medically screened both before and following their deployments. However, post-deployment screenings are not always conducted, because DOD lacks standardized procedures for processing returning civilians. Approximately 21 percent of DOD civilians who responded to our survey stated that they did not complete a post- deployment health assessment. In contrast, State generally requires a medical clearance as a precondition to deployment but has no formal requirement for post-deployment screenings of civilians who deploy under its purview. Our prior work has found that documenting the medical condition of deployed civilians both before and following deployment is critical to identifying conditions that may have resulted from deployment, such as traumatic brain injury.[Footnote 21] We are recommending that (1) DOD clarify its guidance concerning the circumstances under which civilians are entitled to treatment at military treatment facilities following deployment and formally advise other agencies that deploy civilians of DOD’s policy governing treatment at these facilities; (2) Labor revise the application materials for workers’ compensation claims to make clear what documentation applicants must submit with their claims; (3) the agencies included in our review establish ombudsman programs or, for agencies deploying small numbers of civilians, focal points to help ensure that deployed civilians get timely responses to their applications and receive the medical benefits to which they are entitled; (4) DOD establish standard procedures to ensure that returning civilians complete required post-deployment medical screenings; and (5) State develop post-deployment medical screening requirements for civilians deployed under its purview. The agencies generally concurred with these recommendations, with the exception of USAID, which stated that it already had an appropriate mechanism to assist its civilians. We address this issue in detail later in our report.

While each of the agencies we reviewed was able to provide a list of deployed civilians, none of these agencies has fully implemented policies and procedures to identify and track its civilians who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. DOD, for example, issued guidance and established procedures for identifying and tracking deployed civilians in 2006, but concluded in 2008 that its guidance and associated procedures were not being consistently implemented across the agency.

In 2008 and 2009 DOD reiterated its policy requirements and again called for DOD components to comply.[Footnote 22] The other agencies we reviewed have some ability to identify deployed civilians, but they did not have any specific mechanisms designed to identify or track location- specific information on these civilians. As we have previously reported, the ability of agencies to report location-specific information on employees is necessary for identifying potential exposures or other incidents related to deployment.[Footnote 23] Lack of such information may hamper these agencies’ ability to intervene quickly to address any future health issues that may result from deployments in support of contingency operations. We are therefore recommending that (1) DOD establish mechanisms to ensure that its policies to identify and track deployed civilians are implemented and (2) the other five executive agencies included in our review develop policies and procedures to accurately identify and track standardized information on deployed civilians. The agencies generally concurred with these recommendations, with the exception of USAID, which stated that it already had an appropriate mechanism to track its civilians.