May 17, 2017

Grassley, Gillibrand Bill to Assist Families of Fallen Officers Passes Senate

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate today unanimously passed legislation authored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to reduce the backlog of families awaiting approval of survivor benefits of public safety officers killed in the line of duty. The bill, passed during Police Week alongside other measures supporting law enforcement, now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

“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,” Grassley said.

“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.”

Congress established the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program in 1976 to provide death benefits to survivors of officers who die in the line of duty. Over the years, the law has been amended to provide disability and education benefits, and to expand the pool of officers who are eligible for these benefits. While the Justice Department has a goal of processing survivor claims within one year of the time they are filed, many families must wait long periods of time for their applications to be approved.

According to recent data, at the end of March 2017, there were 756 active claims before the PSOB Office.  These claims have been pending for an average of 753 days.  Between October 2016 and March 2017, the PSOB Office determined 179 claims, but received 192 claims, resulting in a net increase in the number of pending claims.

To address the backlog, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act expands public oversight of the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program by permanently increasing the level of transparency regarding wait times for benefits applications. Specifically, the bill:

  • requires the Justice Department to post on its website, weekly status updates for all pending claims and biannual aggregate statistics regarding these claims;
  • allows the Justice Department to rely on other federal regulatory standards;
  • requires the Justice Department to demonstrate clear and convincing evidence that an officer was negligent or engaged in misconduct at the time of his or her death or injury before denying a claim on those grounds; and
  • allows for the Justice Department to give substantial weight to—and sometimes requires it to adopt—findings of fact of state, local, and other federal agencies.

Under the bill, the Justice Department must also utilize all of its investigative authorities before rejecting claims based on a lack of information, and establish remedies for claimants who age out of eligibility for education benefits because of the department’s own delays in processing their claims. The bill’s provisions would apply to all claims that are pending at the time of the bill’s enactment, in addition to all claims filed after that date.

The Senate passed similar legislation last year. The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act was introduced this year by Grassley and Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and is cosponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Last year, Grassley convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to shed light on the length of time the Justice Department takes to consider death benefit claims from the families of fallen public safety officers. At the hearing, Jay Langenbau of Northwood, Iowa, testified that his family had yet to receive benefits following the death of his wife, Shelly, in 2013. Two days following Langenbau’s public testimony, the Justice Department finally approved his benefits application.