Hurricane Sandy First Responders Win Health Benefits After Viral Online Campaign

Last week, Dena Patrick of Wishadoo! — an online charitable organization — posted a petition calling for the federal government to provide Hurricane Sandy first responders with health benefits, since thousands of disaster relief workers do not currently qualify for coverage. Today, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) granted her request, announcing that it will immediately begin providing permanent health benefits to more than 8,000 disaster assistance employees who work on intermittent or temporary schedules.

The petition drew tens of thousands of signatures within days, prompting OPM to open up the Federal Employee Health Benefits plan to “certain employees who work on intermittent schedules” to correct for the long-standing benefit shortfall:

“This regulatory change removes a longstanding barrier to [Federal Employees Health Benefits] coverage for FEMA’s disaster assistance employees who are helping the recovery effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,” said John Berry, director of OPM.

The agency referred to the decision to grant seasonal firefighters health benefits in July as a sort of precedent for offering benefits to reservists, or part-time disaster workers, according to a government document. Currently, reservists make up the majority of about 3,000 FEMA employees sent to areas affected by the hurricane. Until Friday, they were offered federal health care benefits only when deployed. […]

“Contacting the heads of the various agencies wasn’t even necessary. This was truly a grassroots, from the bottom up, movement,” Patrick said. The petition had more than 113,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.

About 70 percent of the FEMA workforce serves on a part-time basis through the Reservist Program, meaning that they did not qualify for employer-based health coverage before today’s announcement — despite the dangerous nature of their work and the long hours comparable to full-time employees’ schedules. OPM’s decision to act in response Patrick’s petition is a swift move to correct this coverage gap for the disaster relief workers who are critical to the country’s clean-up efforts.