The Defense Department on Sept. 1 abruptly suspended its Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers referrals for hundreds of thousands in the civilian workforce for health care, mental health counseling, legal matters and other support services. And while officials say there's an agreement in place to resume the service, it's not clear when it will start up again.
The suspension of the program went mostly under the radar, with no public announcement from the DoD, although at least one DoD agency advised its staff that they should call 911 in an emergency while the suspension is in effect.
In a posted statement on its website, the Defense Logistics Agency said EAP services provided by Federal Occupational Health (FOH), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "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 DLA statement said.
DLA officials said the alert was meant for internal staff, and questions on the suspension, the contracts and Federal Occupational Health should be directed to the DoD.
There was no immediate response from the DoD, but Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb confirmed late Friday in an emailed statement that the EAP had been suspended, and the suspension affects DoD civilians at the Pentagon, the military branches, defense agencies and DoD field activities.
The Defense Department is the government's largest employer, with more than 700,000 civilians in the workforce worldwide.
Babb's statement said EAP referral services, provided through an arrangement with the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Occupational Health, would be resumed shortly, but could not say when.
The statement also suggests that a restoration of services under the current arrangement would be temporary while the DoD looks for a "long-term solution" to providing employee assistance.
"DoD's Employee Assistance Program was previously administered through interagency agreements [with HHS]," Babb said. "Those services were temporarily suspended September 1.
"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," she added. "To minimize the disruption in service, HHS has agreed to temporarily resume Employee Assistance Program services to DoD. DoD is developing long-term solutions to provide this important support to DoD civilian employees."
A spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 250,000 civilians at the DoD, said Thursday the union had received word from the Defense Department that the Employee Assistance Program would be resumed, but "it may take a couple of days for the services to get turned back on."
Federal Occupational Health has a unique status within the government bureaucracy and bills itself as the largest provider of occupational health services in the federal government, serving more than 360 federal agencies and reaching 1.8 million federal employees.
FOH is a "non-appropriated agency" within the Program Support Center of HHS, and as such it "operates like a business within the government and charges government agencies for the services it provides them," according to the FOH website.
FOH, through the Employee Assistance Program, offers initial assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up support services for health care, family and relationship issues, workplace problems, alcohol and drug dependence, depression and other issues that can affect job performance, according to the site.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.