Four Pilots Allegedly Lied About Whether They Were Receiving Benefits From the Department of Veterans Affairs For Medical Conditions
Prosecutor and Press do not explain the Alternative to Lying
Employer offers appropriate Employee Assistance Program
A federal grand jury indicted four airline pilots for making false statements to the government in FAA forms. In each case, the pilots are accused of submitting forms to the FAA that deny the existence of medical conditions for which the pilots were receiving disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One of the defendants was alleged to have told the FAA:
“that he did not suffer from any mental disorders including depression or anxiety despite having represented to the VA that he suffered from major depressive disorder.”
For which, he was charged for
“Making a false statement, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2).”
Each count carries a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison, if the defendants are convicted.
The US Attorney, in announcing the indictment, is not expected to put the mental health aspects in context. The press, recognizing a good headline, adds that the lie was made to keep flying. What is missing is the extent to which the airlines, and here Delta Air Lines in particular, have created alternatives to termination for lying.
Several years ago, the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health reported on Delta’s Employees Assistance Program, Delta Air Lines Keeps Climbing and Caring. Here are some quotes which will help put this case in context:
“The span of roles at Delta and the continuous, 24-7 nature of its work makes maintaining healthy support systems for both mental and physical health of the utmost importance. The value Delta places on people is core to its supportive and meaningful work environment and the rationale for the numerous benefits and programs that support its workers.
Delta’s CEO, Richard Anderson, since his arrival in 2007 has been continuing Delta’s vision as a values-based organization. Anderson’s often shared phrase, “People make the difference,” is indicative of the workplace culture’s strong core values and is reflected in the care shown for people both internal and external to Delta. The focus on people is not only stated but is built into basic business principles captured in the “Rules of the Road” value statement at Delta. The values and principles play out across the organization and are intended, in part, to keep the employees safe and engaged (Delta, n.d., pp. 4,6). Delta has a variety of health programs and other support programs that help create a work environment that reinforces employees’ safety and engagement.
The company has long supported the mental health of its employees. Delta was recognized by the Washington Business Group on Health (2000) as an example of a large employer who had generous or near-parity levels of mental health and substance use disorder benefits through their employer-sponsored plan, long before the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. Whether there is a medical condition, disability, or short-term challenge facing an employee, Delta’s support focuses on the person and finding ways for the employee to stay engaged in work.
Delta continues to engage its employees to maintain health at a variety of levels that include prevention, early intervention, and more active interventions. These three levels are seen as being on a continuum of health, and when addressed by organizations systemically, they can be indispensable in safeguarding long-term organizational health and stability, which reinforces employee health and engagement (Spangler, Koesten, Fox, & Radel, 2012). Prevention includes the organization’s core values and supportive culture, as well as peer support. Early interventions include referrals to the employee assistance program (EAP) or other education mechanisms. Active interventions are for more serious situations that require disability leave or disease management. What is striking in the case of Delta is how well connected these various health interventions and programs are, creating a fluid process for the employee – the person – who may be facing a health challenge at work. Jennifer Shay, Delta’s program manager for health plans, joined the team because of the, “palpable sense that ‘people first’ is the base of every decision across Delta.”
”Delta’s EAP is focused on a deep understanding of Delta’s business and culture. Delta received the inaugural Behavioral Health Award for its EAP program during the 2007 Joint Forum on Health, Productivity, and Absence, presented by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and the Integrated Benefits Institute. After 15 years of an internal EAP model, Delta shifted to an external model in 2006, yet the focus on Delta’s culture and values remained consistent throughout the transition (National Business Group on Health, 2007). Delta’s conscious focus on its people is kept at the forefront through training of key EAP staff assigned to Delta by its EAP provider, Optum Behavioral Solutions (Optum), part of UnitedHealth Group.
Shay suggests that one noteworthy feature of Delta’s EAP service is that from the first call, master’s-level behavioral health clinicians are on the other end of the line. These clinicians serve as a single point of entry within the EAP for all behavioral health concerns from employees or their family members. While employees can access their mental health benefits directly with their providers, in the first call to the EAP, a clinician talks through the caller’s concerns and challenges and helps to triage what follow-up is needed through the EAP, behavioral health and substance use disorder benefits, or work/life services. (Work/life services include concierge services related to finances, day care, and parenting, as well as a host of other topics.) Shay said this arrangement allows the EAP to begin therapeutic services using a solution-focused consultation approach immediately, and 33% of cases are resolved on the first call. This approach helps avoid transferring a potentially distressed person to another professional and making the caller explain his or her story a second time.
John Early, Delta’s general manager of productivity management, indicated that 65% of calls by employees to the EAP in 2012 were related to behavioral health concerns, such as stress, marital situations, or major depression (Early, Lee, & Nash-Wright, 2012). Overall, Delta has seen substantial resolution of behavioral health calls that were made through the EAP and that did not require additional care through other health benefits (see Table 2).
Delta provides extra support for employees through employee resource groups (ERGs) and a peer support program for flight attendants. ERGs provide employees with peer support through shared characteristics or life experiences and are often focused on career growth and engagement.
Behavioral Health Leave and Accommodations
When challenges faced by employees cannot be fully addressed through the EAP, then mental health and substance use disorder benefits, absence management, and accommodation processes come into play. Early, Lee, and Nash-Wright (2012) collected data about the prevalence of behavioral or substance use disorder claims among Delta’s short-term and long-term disability claims. Their findings are summarized in Table 3.
Delta is dedicated to keeping employees engaged and/or facilitating their return to work after a leave is necessary. Early shared that while there is a subjective nature to behavioral health conditions and how work functionality is determined, Delta has a thorough approach to finding solutions when possible. To maintain consistency in reviewing accommodation requests, Delta uses what is called an Interactive Accommodation Discussion process, which fulfills compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement for an “interactive process.” The aims of the discussion are to address limitations that impact the employee and to explore what accommodations might be made that allow the core duties of the role to be completed. Delta accomplishes this consistent approach through a review process that includes the employee, a representative of Sedgwick (Delta’s disability administrator), the employee’s leader or supervisor, a designated Delta division contact for accommodations, and a human resources generalist. For Delta, a challenge in providing some accommodations is the need to meet Federal Aviation Administration qualifications for various roles (Early, Lee, & Nash-Wright, 2012).
That’s an impressive third party review of the airline’s EAP and it gets strong reviews at Greatplacestowork.com.
The company does not make public its specific practices as to a pilot who acknowledges a mental health problem. That based on the APA article, one would surmise that Delta pilots have alternatives that are appropriate mental health policy. By so doing enlightened airlines substantially reduce their safety risks. The FAA explains, not with specificity:
“…many pilots have conditions that are treatable. Several U.S. airlines already have reporting and monitoring programs that provide the pilot with a path to report their condition, be treated for it, and return to the cockpit once the FAA has determined – through a rigorous evaluation – it is safe to do so. The FAA addresses the medical certificates of those pilots on a case-by-case basis.”
By encouraging to be aware of their mental health, by providing a path which minimizes the risk of loss of license, by reducing the risk that pilots with problems will be in the cockpit until help has been administered, the issue of mental health is being proactively addressed.
In the case of these four pilots, it does not appear that they availed themselves of care.
Harvard Chan School of Public Health Study makes findings about Pilot Mental Health; is there a second iteration which can detect Pilot Mental Problems?
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