WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee has begun a preliminary investigation into complaints that the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) has been callous in its treatment of injured federal workers who have sought benefits, according to sources familiar with the probe.
The way the office handles benefit applications reportedly has caused the applicants mental problems, sources said.
Sick or injured federal workers have told congressional investigators about a pattern of OWCP harassment of federal employees with legitimate complaints. The alleged mistreatment has included sending patients to as many as 26 doctors for proof of a disability claim. It also has included termination, or threats to terminate, compensation benefits that may be the only source of household income, said former federal employees and congressional sources.
Some injured workers end up declaring bankruptcy when the government cuts them off, the sources added. Disabled former employees also have charged that government officials have screamed at them on the telephone, continuously "lost" files and repeatedly found reasons to deny their claims, the sources alleged.
"I've never seen such insensitivity on the part of anybody who was responsible for such a program," said an aide to Rep. Austin J. Murphy, D-Pa., whose House Subcommittee on Labor Standards is investigating the allegations.
OWCP Director Lawrence W. Rogers said the division occasionally makes mistakes in determining who should receive compensation, but he denied any "conspiracy" to withhold benefits from deserving workers.
"What happens is, we turn them down, and they don't like it, and it goes on and on," Rogers said. "One person had a claim with us for 30 years, and filed something like 26 or 28 appeals. They just build up in their mind the notion that they ought to get them [the payments]."
Rogers said his office has an overall approval rate for workers compensation applications of 92 percent. However, he added, the office rejects 35 percent of the occupational disease claims, which includes such conditions as heart disease and stress.
"On the whole, while there have been points of dissatisfaction, I don't think there is an inherent problem," Rogers said. "In any benefit program -- such as Social Security -- there are going to be people who do not agree with our decisions . . ." Occasional mistakes are remedied in the appeal process, he said.
Most of the former employees interviewed said it took a minimum of four years to begin receiving workers compensation.
That contrasts sharply with Rogers' assessment. "Upwards of 80 to 90 percent are decided upon within 45 days of the time they reach the office," Rogers said.
Charles S. Bradford, president of Delta Group of Settlement Companies in Atlanta, said the harassment and mismanagement he has observed in the federal agency is a "scandal" that would never be tolerated outside of a federal agency. Bradford represents a federal employee seeking a lump-sum settlement and would get a commission if it is awarded.
Several former federal employees said they fear there is little sympathy for their plight, particularly as the economy heads for a recession. But, they added, the situation appears to be worsening.
"People call me up . . . and leave suicide messages on my phone, and I have people in mental institutions, who know they were put there by the harassment," said Wilson L. Clow Jr., director of the National Association of Federal Injured Workers.
"Once I had to call the police on a guy who said he couldn't take it anymore and had literally taken his 9 mm [pistol] and was headed" for the workers compensation office, he added.
Injured workers, some of whom are cooperating with the subcommittee, and sources familiar with the probe said the following cases illustrate the allegations:
* Mike Klein, a former IRS employee in Atlanta who once broke the biggest bribery case in the agency's history. Klein submitted a sworn affidavit to the subcommittee alleging extortion by the government. A "hostile" official "threatened me that if I didn't succumb to a 10th medical examination to determine if I were totally and permanently disabled, he would throw me off the workers compensation rolls,'" Klein said.
Klein said he has now been to 11 doctors, all of whom have verified he is permanently disabled from his undercover work.
* Calvin Scott, a former Atlanta federal prison employee injured in a riot by Cuban inmates in 1984.
He is filing suit against the government for allegedly misrepresenting a person he was required to see as a psychiatrist. Scott said he checked up on the so-called doctor and found she did not have a license to practice psychiatry in Georgia.
* A former Army official, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation, said the government often "lost" his file, sent him to six doctors who all came to the conclusion that he is permanently disabled from a job-related injury, and "harassed" him by repeatedly denying he has a health problem.
Clow, the director of the National Association of Federal Injured Workers, is an injured former Navy Department worker who went to 26 doctors in his quest for compensation after claiming he suffered seven job-related injuries to his shoulder and neck, he said.
"About 80 percent of the permanently disabled federal workers wind up in bankruptcy, foreclosure or ruined credit or all three," Clow said.