A significant number of federal employees injured on the job and collecting workers’ compensation benefits have been overprescribed opioids for pain relief and become addicted, like millions of other people caught up in this national epidemic.
The Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs tackled this problem head on by instituting a series of successful measures under the direction of Antonio Rios to both get people off the addictive medication and keep others from starting.
The result has been a 58% drop in opioid users to about 12,000 in January 2022 from nearly 29,000 in Jan. 2017 when the initiative began. The monthly average of new opioid users decreased by 39%, down to about 965 from just under 1,600 in the same timeframe.
“The reduction of opioid use within this program has been dramatic,” said Christopher Godfrey, director of the workers’ compensation programs office and Rios’ supervisor. “Tony recognized the harm and built in provisions to avoid additional addiction, and has made sure that those using opioids are getting the help they need to overcome addiction.”
Godfrey pointed out that many federal workers have been in a terrible quandary. ”A worker might break an arm at work, but it’s the opioid addiction rather than the arm injury that ultimately hurts their ability to be on the job,” he said.
The federal workers’ compensation program administers benefits to 2.6 million federal employees, postal workers and others, and provides about $3 billion in annual payments to more than 200,000 beneficiaries.
To help workers who are prescribed opioids—sometimes at high dosages or for long durations—and reduce the number of unnecessary new opioids used, Rios removed barriers for alternative treatments that could be covered by the compensation program and limited the length of time the medications could be prescribed without being justified by a physician.
“Tony set up the opioid program to address short-term needs and long-term problems,” said William Walter, a senior policy adviser with the workers’ compensation program. “His approach was methodical, data-driven and focused.”
To implement the pharmacy controls, Rios had to overcome a number of medical, legal and administrative hurdles, according to Jennifer Valdivieso, deputy director of the worker compensation program. But once prescription restrictions were in place, Valdivieso said, “We saw improvements right away.”
In addition to his work on opioids, Rios instituted several management improvements, the most significant one involving the creation and expanded usage of the Employees’ Compensation Operations & Management Portal. This is an online, self-service system known as ECOMP, where federal workers injured on the job can file claims directly to the Department of Labor.
For years, some federal agencies preferred using their own electronic systems and, in some cases, insisted on faxing or mailing paper documents.
“Antonio recognized that expanded use of ECOMP would provide many benefits, including faster claims adjudication and therefore quicker medical and compensation assistance,” Walter said.
Rios proposed and lobbied for a requirement for all federal agencies to use the Labor Department’s online portal to file all claims, a proposal that was officially adopted by the Office of Management and Budget in 2020.
“Tony had the vision to create a streamlined process for filing claims that made it easier to gather data and improve case outcomes for all involved,” Valdivieso said. “Now every department uses the same portal. It allows people to work collaboratively in real time with agencies, lawyers, unions and claimants.”
Valdivieso said Rios has been successful because he doesn’t accept the status quo and isn’t daunted by administrative barriers. “He’s constantly looking for better ways to do things.”
“Tony moves quickly to solve problems and then pivots to develop long-term solutions,” Walter added. “He has moved federal workers’ compensation into the 21st century.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Rios spent time as a migrant farmworker at one point, and he and his family often relied on food stamps and government services for support.
“My way of giving back was to get into public service and make sure that not only we are providing benefits to those who need them, but that we’re also protecting those benefits and making sure that we have program integrity,” Rios said. “The federal government was there for me and now I’ve been given the opportunity to give back and make an impact.”