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The killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and the wounding of another last week in Arizona demonstrates the dangers faced by law enforcement professionals who depend on a federal workers compensation program when things go wrong.
The government has called into question the claims-handling efficiency of that program.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General criticized the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency's management of claims filed under the Federal Employees Compensation Act, which provides workers comp benefits for federal workers, including Border Patrol agents and surviving dependents.
In 2010, the customs and border protection agency spent $62 million on 11,229 workers comp claims, including medical expenses, according to a recent Inspector General report. The agency had nearly 59,000 employees in 2010.
Last week, Nicholas Ivie, a 30-year-old Border Patrol agent, was shot and killed near the border with Mexico, south of Tucson, Ariz.
Friendly fire probably killed the U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona near the Mexican border, the FBI said on Friday, citing "strong preliminary indications" in the investigation, Reuters reported.
Injured agents can find navigating a large government bureaucracy frustrating when attempting to obtain benefits, said James Stack, an agent and vice president at large for the National Border Patrol Council and president of the union's local affiliate in El Paso, Texas.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers Compensation Programs, which administers the federal workers comp program, properly pays benefits once notified of an injury, Mr. Stack said.
But individual federal agencies are responsible for certain claims administration duties such as initiating Federal Employees Compensation Act claims, advising their employees, assisting them in returning to work and managing costs, according to documents.
The Border Patrol, however, doesn't do a good job of advising its injured employees on their rights or on how to file a claim, Mr. Stack said.
Yet agents and their families depend on the program when they are harmed or killed while on duty, Mr. Stack said.
“That is the federal employees' and border patrol agents' only source of redress should they be injured on the job,” he said.
Agent frustrations with their workers comp system aside, the Inspector General report found that the customs and border protection agency did not effectively control costs and that it was deficient in maintaining procedures for ensuring effective case management.
Auditors found, for instance, that from 2007 through 2009, the agency failed to validate “chargeback bills” for 28,245 claims totaling $163 million. The bills are for amounts the U.S. Department of Labor charges its agencies to fund their claims.
“As a result, CBP has not minimized lost workdays and related compensation costs and has been billed for inappropriate costs,” according to the report.
Private sector employers often allocate chargebacks to encourage local units to reduce injuries.
Fred O. Pachón, vice president of risk management and insurance for Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Select Staffing Inc., said his company holds its branches responsible for insurance costs and additional chargebacks of $500 to $1,500 when, for example, a root-cause investigation reveals that an injured employee was not properly trained or his or her physical capabilities were not properly matched with the job.
“The message is, "Avoid the attitude of what doesn't cost me, doesn't affect me,' “ Mr. Pachón said.
Last week's shootings occurred near a Border Patrol post recently named after Agent Brian Terry. He was shot in 2010 and his killing prompted investigations into a botched federal gun trafficking probe dubbed Fast and Furious that allowed weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
Cartels always have been willing to kill Border Patrol agents, Mr. Stack said. “That criminal element has always been present on the border and some parts of that criminal element have always been willing to take out a Border Patrol agent or assault a border patrol agent.”
Assaults on agents, however, dropped recently because the struggling U.S. economy has meant fewer illegal immigrants are attempting to go to the U.S. for jobs, Mr. Stack said. That has led to fewer incidents such as the once-common practice of illegal aliens standing on Mexico's side of the border and hurling rocks at agents' vehicles, he said.
But shootings and assaults are only some of the workplace hazards Border Patrol agents face.
Their training alone takes its toll, Mr. Stack said. Injuries occur during use-of-force training, or while learning to use equipment such as all-terrain vehicles, he said.
Chasing illegal aliens, running through rough terrain, hopping over fences and the like also cause impact injuries such as broken bones or dislocated joints, he said.
Border Patrol agents “climb over unusual terrain with lots of easy places to twist your ankle, fall, twist knees and get injured,” a spokeswoman said. “They are making contact with a criminal element. They drive vehicles in places where it is unusual, so they might have vehicle accidents.”
Other mishaps also take their toll. Agent James R. Dominguez died after a vehicle struck him in July while he was helping a disabled motorist in Texas.