The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act Legislation Unanimously Passes the Senate
In a release issued on May 17, 2017 by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley, the United States Senate unanimously passed legislation to help families of fallen officers.
The legislation will reduce the backlog of families who are still awaiting approval of survivor benefits for public safety officers killed in the line of duty. The bill is on its way to the House of Representatives for consideration, according to the release.
“I’m very pleased the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act unanimously passed the Senate,” said Senator Gillibrand. “When a first responder dies as a result of their work, we all have a responsibility to help take care of their surviving family members. This legislation would help ensure that the families of fallen first responders receive the compensation they deserve and need in a timely and transparent manner. Now that this bill has passed the Senate, I urge my colleagues in the House of Representatives to send it to the President’s desk to be signed into law as quickly as possible.”
“As a society, we’ve promised to support the loved ones of officers who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect us, so it’s unacceptable that these families are often forced to wait, in some cases, for years, for the Justice Department to process their survivor benefits applications. A little transparency and public scrutiny can go a long way, and this bill shines a bright public light on the Justice Department’s survivor benefits backlog to get some answers for these families. My colleagues in the House of Representatives should pass this bill as soon as possible to bring needed help to the loved ones of our fallen officers,” said Senator Grassley.
In 1976, Congress established the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program. The program provides death benefits to the survivors of officers who have died while in the line of duty. Since it was first put into law, the program has been amended to provide disability and education benefits, as well as to expand the collective of officers who are eligible for these benefits. The Justice Department is responsible for processing survivor claims within one year of the time that the claim was filed; however, many families must wait for long periods of time to receive approval for their applications.
As of the end of March 2017, there were 756 active claims pending in the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits office and the claims were pending for an average of 753 days. Between October 2016 and March 2017, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Office determined 179 claims, but also received 192 claims, which led to a net increase of 13 pending claims, according to the release.
In an effort to address the backlog, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act will broaden public oversight of the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program by permanently increasing the level of transparency concerning wait times for benefits applications, according to the release. The bill specifically:
- Requires the Justice Department to post weekly updates on its website, for all pending claims, as well as bi-annual aggregate statistics concerning these claims;
- allows the Justice Department to rely on other federal regulatory standards;
- requires the Justice Department to show clear and convincing evidence that an officer was negligent or had engaged in misconduct at the time of his or her death or injury prior to declination of a claim on those grounds; and
- allows the Justice Department to provide substantial weight to, at specific times, mandate it to adopt, findings of fact of state, local, and other federal agencies.
Also under the bill, the Justice Department must use all of its investigative authorities prior to rejecting claims based on a lack of information. The Department must also put in place remedies for claimants who age out of eligibility for education benefits due to the department’s backlog in processing. The bill’s provisions would apply to all claims pending when the bill is enacted, as well as all claims filed after that date, according to the release.
The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act was introduced this year by Gillibrand and Grassley and is also cosponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah), Chris Coons (Democrat-Delaware), Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont), Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota), Al Franken (Democrat-Minnesota), Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat-Rhode Island), Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California), Mazie Hirono (Democrat-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (Democrat-Connecticut), and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).
National law firm, Parker Waichman LLP, has long fought to ensure that fallen public safety officers receive the benefits they deserve, including the families of the fallen officers who lost their lives in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Background On The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act
The effort to hold the Justice Department accountable for its handling of the benefits claims of fallen public safety officers survivors took place as part of National Police Week.
In April 2017, Senator Grassley held a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee to show how long it takes the Justice Department to consider benefits claims from the families of fallen public safety officers. As of May 2017, over 423 families have been waiting for an answer for more than one year and there are 175 pending death and disability claims filed on behalf of officers who lost their lives due to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to CaffeinatedThoughts.com
Two days after last month’s hearing, in which Iowa sheriff Jay Langenbau testified about the three-year wait for a response on the benefits claim after his wife’s death, Sheriff Langenbau heard from the PSOB office that his claim had been approved. “When an Iowan who testifies before the committee suddenly gets his claim answered two days later, after having waited more than three years, it tells me that the department can process other claims in a timely manner if properly motivated. I’ll say it again. Transparency leads to accountability,” Senator Grassley said. “The good news is that one family received answers, but there remain hundreds of other claimants waiting for answers,” CaffeinatedThoughts.com reported.
Senator Grassley’s prepared Floor statement began, in part: “Mr. President, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation which designated this week as National Police Week. As part of that tradition, tens of thousands of law enforcement officers have gathered in our nation’s capital to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to this nation. And I rise today to join these officers in thanking the men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting our communities. We must never take their sacrifice for granted, and we need to appreciate that their surviving families have suffered real loss. In recognition of this truth, Congress passed the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act in 1976.”