Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Report on Pay and Benefits of Deployed Civilians in War Zones

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its report on compensation and medical benefits extended to Federal civilians during deployment in the war zones. Selected excerpts reprinted below:


The Department of Defense (DOD) and other executive agencies increasingly deploy civilians in support of contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior GAO reports show that the use of deployed civilians has raised questions about the potential for differences in policies on compensation and medical benefits. GAO was asked to compare agency policies and to identify any issues in policy or implementation regarding (1) compensation, (2) medical benefits, and (3) identification and tracking of deployed civilians. GAO reviewed laws and agency policies; interviewed officials responsible for governmentwide guidance at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and for policy at six selected agencies, including DOD and State; reviewed all workers' compensation claims filed by deployed civilians from January 1, 2006 through April 30, 2008 at the Department of Labor; and conducted a generalizeable survey of civilians deployed from the six agencies during this same period.

Although policies concerning compensation for deployed civilians are generally comparable across agencies, GAO found some issues that affect the amount of compensation--depending on such things as the agency's pay system or the employee's grade/band--and the accuracy, timeliness, and completeness of this compensation. For example, two civilian supervisors with comparable salaries who deploy under different pay systems receive different overtime pay because the overtime rate is determined by the employee's pay system and grade/band level. While a congressional subcommittee asked OPM to develop a benefits package for all deployed civilians to war zones and to recommend enabling legislation, OPM has not yet developed such a package or provided legislation. Also, implementation of some policies may not always be accurate or timely. For example, GAO estimates that approximately 40 percent of the deployed civilians in its survey reported experiencing problems with compensation--including not receiving danger pay--in part because they did not know where to go for assistance. Moreover, in January 2008, Congress gave agency heads discretion to apply the death gratuity provision retroactively for deaths connected with operations in Iraq or Afghanistan on or after October 7, 2001. At the time of GAO's review, agencies had not yet issued formal policy to implement this benefit.

Although agency policies on medical benefits are similar, GAO found some issues with medical care following deployment, workers' compensation, and post deployment medical screenings that affect the benefits of deployed civilians. Specifically, while DOD allows its treatment facilities to care for "non-DOD" civilians following deployment in some cases, the circumstances are not clearly identified in guidance and some agencies were unaware of DOD's policy. Civilians who deploy also may be eligible for medical benefits through worker's compensation. GAO's analysis of 188 such claims filed with Labor revealed some significant processing delays resulting in part from lack of clarity about the documentation required to support claims. Without clear information on what documents to submit to support a claim, applicants may continue to experience delays. Further, while DOD requires medical screening before and following deployment for civilians, State requires medical screenings only before deployment. Prior GAO work found that documenting the medical condition of deployed personnel before and following deployment was critical to identifying conditions that may have resulted from deployment. Each agency provided GAO with a list of deployed civilians, but none had fully implemented policies to identify and track these civilians. DOD, for example, had procedures to identify and track deployed civilians but concluded that its guidance was not consistently implemented. While the other agencies had some ability to identify and track civilians, some had to manually search their systems. Thus, agencies may lack critical information on the location and movement of personnel, which may hamper their ability to intervene promptly to address emerging health issues, as GAO has previously reported.

Death Gratuity:

In addition, Congress provided for a death gratuity under FECA of up to $100,000 to be paid to the survivor of a deployed civilian whose death resulted from injuries incurred while deployed in support of a contingency operation. This statute also provided agency heads with the discretion to apply the death gratuity provision retroactively for survivors of civilians who died, on or after October 7, 2001, from injuries incurred in connection with their service with an armed service in the theater of operations during either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. This provision became law on January 28, 2008. However, Labor, which is responsible for implementing regulations under FECA, has yet to issue formal implementing policy—although Labor officials told us that they have been working to finalize a policy for over a year. Further, while some agencies have issued memoranda or conducted briefings concerning the death gratuity, according to officials at the agencies included in our review, none has issued formal policy that incorporates these provisions—including the retroactive provision—because they are waiting for implementing guidance from Labor. In fact, officials from State and USAID said that they cannot move forward on these provisions until Labor issues its guidance. 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; Labor officials stated that the draft policy is currently being reviewed for approval by the Office of Management and Budget. Despite the lack of formal policy, officials at Labor and DOD stated that, at the time of our review, this $100,000 death gratuity had been paid in one instance Civilians’ Eligibility to Receive Care at DOD Medical Facilities Following Deployment Is Not Clear or Conveyed to Other Agencies Despite DOD’s policy to allow “non-DOD” civilians to receive treatment in DOD facilities following deployment, confusion exists within other agencies and DOD regarding non-DOD civilians’ eligibility for this care. For example, officials at several agencies, including State, USAID, and Justice, were unaware that deployed civilians were eligible for care at DOD facilities following deployment, in part because these agencies did not receive the September 2007 memorandum from DOD. Additionally, confusion exists within DOD regarding non-DOD civilians’ eligibility. Response from the Department of State:

In its written comments in response to a draft of our report, the Department of State concurred with our three recommendations. Specifically, with respect to our recommendation that it develop post-deployment medical screening requirements, State committed to implementing mandatory medical clearance exams for civilian employees upon completion of their assignment in a combat zone, beginning in 2010. With respect to our recommendation that it establish an ombudsman program to help ensure that deployed civilians receive the compensation and medical benefits to which they are entitled, State committed to designating a formal ombudsman to replace its informal existing mechanisms. Finally, with respect to our recommendation that it establish policies and procedures to identify and track deployed civilians, State committed to consulting and coordinating with DOD and other executive agencies to determine the best way to establish policies and procedures to accurately identify and track standardized information on deployed civilians. If properly designed and implemented, these actions should meet the intent of our recommendations. Response from United States Agency for International Development: In its written comments in response to a draft of our report, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) generally agreed with our conclusions but did not agree with our recommendations. With respect to our recommendation that USAID establish an ombudsman to help ensure that its deployed civilians receive the compensation and medical benefits to which they are entitled, USAID officials pointed out that the agency already has an ombudsman to support its Critical Priority Countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. According to USAID, this ombudsman, among other things, helps Foreign Service employees deployed to these countries with a variety of issues, including compensation and medical benefits. We contacted the individual who USAID identified as the ombudsman and asked for documentation related to this position and its origin and responsibilities. This official stated that the position was established in 2006 to assist deployed civilians in obtaining the compensation and medical benefits to which they are entitled, but this official did not provide any supporting documentation. In the absence of documentation, it is unclear to us how USAID's ombudsman ensures that deployed civilians receive the full compensation and benefits to which they are entitled. Accordingly, we continue to believe our recommendation has merit. With respect to our recommendation to establish policies and procedures to accurately identify and track standardized information on deployed civilians, USAID commented that it believed its current systems to be adequate and additional policies and procedures to be unnecessary at this juncture. We disagree; for example, when asked to develop a list of civilians the agency had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, USAID officials stated that they had no agencywide system that would provide this information. They relied in part on a manual search of personnel records. Furthermore, we note that USAID was unable to provide a list of civilians who had deployed for less than 180 days--in part because doing so would have been extremely labor intensive. As we have noted in this report and in prior work, agencies must be able to capture and subsequently retrieve location-specific information on employees, to identify possible exposures to environmental or industrial contaminants during deployment. Such information includes movement within theater and medical treatments while deployed. Without this capability, an agency may be unable to intervene promptly to address any future health problems that employees may develop as a result of deployment in support of contingency operations. USAID's current capability, which relies in part on manual searches and may require labor intensive efforts to retrieve this information, does not represent a system that meets the intent of our recommendation. Should any deployment-related medical concerns develop in the future, such a system may fail to identify all individuals who may be affected. As a result, we continue to believe that our recommendation is appropriate. Read the whole thing here including the GAO's 10-point recommendations.

Related Item: GAO: Human Capital - Actions Needed to Better Track and Provide Timely and Accurate Compensation and Medical Benefits to Deployed Federal Civilians GAO-09-562 | June 2009 (pdf)

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