What a lousy reception

Congress recently asked the General Accounting Office to examine how the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs was communicating with injured federal workers, with agencies who employ these individuals and with medical and other service providers who are involved in their treatment. The findings are sickening.

GAO says that feds who try to contact OWCP for information about their claims regularly got busy signals, wrong numbers, unanswered telephones, long hold times and inaccessible voice mail boxes. GAO made 2,400 calls to OWCP's 12 district offices. Among its findings: no goals for some important areas of telephone communications and failure to adequately survey injured workers, medical providers and others to determine levels of satisfaction.

GAO added, "The extent to which we were unable to access district offices' telephone systems on our 2,400 calls ranged from 0 percent in Boston to 54 percent in Jacksonville. The rates at which we were unable to reach any employee within 5 minutes ranged from 13 percent to 97 percent of the calls."

Unfortunately, injured feds don't have the option of discontinuing their association with OWCP and taking their business elsewhere. OWCP is the only game in town if you're an injured fed trying to find out the status of your claim or when you can expect medical or disability payments to begin. Injured feds should receive first-class service, but from the looks of it, they're lucky to get any service at all!

"I can't understand why it's so difficult to answer a telephone," said Rep. Bill Barrett (R-Neb.), vice chairman of a House subcommittee on workforce protections, during a hearing. OWCP's acting director, Shelby Hallmark, said the office is understaffed and can't handle the workload of the approximately 250,000 claims a year for disability and medical payments. Hallmark made a pitch for more resources, saying: "Our goal is to make breakthroughs in how we perform customer service. Even if we don't get the budget request, we will continue to provide service in these areas, but world-class service will continue to elude us."

What irks me is how this hearing was concluded. GAO made some procedural recommendations but evaded the question of whether OWCP's management was to blame. Nor did GAO make recommendations concerning the resources that have been provided to OWCP. Are they adequate or are more needed? If they're not enough, who's to blame? Is Barrett without fault? Why didn't he look into the funding and management of OWCP earlier?

Where's the accountability? GAO is only interested in issuing reports, and congressional committees are only interested in holding hearings. As long as they keep doing that, their paycheck is secure. Is that the only thing they do care about?

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@starpower.net.

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