Pentagon, HHS temporarily restore employee assistance for DoD civilians

This story was updated on 9/9/2019 at 6:00 p.m. to reflect that EAP services have been temporarily restored for DoD employees. 

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Programs that provide a wide range of benefits to the Defense Department’s civilian workforce were being restored Monday after being suddenly suspended a week earlier, leaving hundreds of thousands of employees without access to services like mental health counseling and various forms of financial assistance.

A message posted to the Defense Logistics Agency’s website on Monday said the Department of Health and Human Services’ office of Federal Occupational Health (FOH) had agreed to bring the Employee Assistance Program back online for the next 60 days while Defense officials find another way to deliver EAP programs to their workforce.

Up until Sept. 1, FOH provided EAP and a separate program, Wellness and Health Promotion to DoD’s more than 700,000 civilian workers via an interagency agreement. But those services ended, apparently without warning, during the Labor Day weekend.

“Federal Occupational Health was mandated to suspend Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Wellness and Health Promotion services to all Department of Defense Agencies,” read one message that workers at the Defense Contract Management Agency received, which Federal News Network obtained. “This unfortunately means DCMA employees cannot currently access any of those services.”

DLA posted a similar message on its website: “Certain Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services provided by Federal Occupational Health (FOH) were unexpectedly suspended as of 9/1/2019 while DoD is implementing new contracting mechanisms. DoD is working to rectify the situation and allow EAP services to resume as soon as possible. If this is a medical emergency, please call 911 or your health care service provider.”

The updated message DLA posted Monday blamed the service cut-off on a “previously unidentified contracting issue.”

FOH did not stop providing EAP services to other federal agencies, and the cause of the cut-off in services to DoD wasn’t clear. But in a statement on Friday afternoon, Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Federal News Network that HHS had agreed to “temporarily resume” service to DoD.

“DoD is developing long-term solutions to provide this important support to DoD civilian employees,” she said. “The health, safety and welfare of our civilian employees is a priority, and DoD is committed to continuing the services previously provided by the Employee Assistance Program.”

Neither HHS nor DoD responded to inquiries about what had caused the program’s suspension to begin with. But in the earlier statement, Babb  confirmed that the cutoff affected all civilian employees across all Defense agencies, the military services and field activities. The services were unavailable as of Sunday evening.

Callers to the Department of the Navy’s 24/7 EAP hotline, for example, were greeted only by a recorded message that said all Department of Defense EAP services had been suspended.

“For urgent medical needs, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room,” the message said. “Please work with your local H.R. department for other work-related needs.”

The Navy message also referred callers seeking help with mental or substance abuse issues to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline for the general public (1-800-662-4357). An official with one of DoD’s labor unions said other Defense components were offering the same advice, for now.

But the official, who asked not to be identified, said the SAMHSA line did not appear to be an adequate alternative. The source said, for example, that there were concerns about whether the “safe harbor” protections involved in the EAP programs would apply when employees called SAMHSA. Under those provisions, workers cannot be disciplined or fired merely for discussing a drug or alcohol program with EAP providers.

Under a 1970 law called the Hughes Act, all federal agencies are required to offer EAP programs. They began with a focus on alcohol abuse and treatment, but have since grown to encompass a wide variety of work-life programs, including financial counseling, workplace conflict resolution, legal services and management training.

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FOH, the agency that delivers the EAP and Wellness and Health Promotion programs to DoD and other agencies is part of HHS’s Program Support Center (PSC). PSC itself has been the subject of recent turmoil, though it remains unclear whether the two issues are related.

This summer, HHS decided to stop providing assisted acquisition services to other agencies through PSC, leaving $1.4 billion in federal contracts in limbo. The acquisition portfolio included services to DoD, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Personnel Management and others, and the fees those contracts generated were PSC’s largest source of operating funds.

And one source with knowledge of the PSC’s operations and financial condition speculated that the FOH service disruption to DoD was a foreshadowing of more to come.

“Whether by design or unintended consequence, their decision to shut down assisted acquisition means they can’t continue the common fee-for-service agency practice of robbing Peter to pay Paul (i.e. using surplus money from a service comfortably in the black to cover the overhead associated with a service in the red),” the source said.

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