Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced the unanimous Senate passage of the Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021. The bipartisan Senate bill, passed late last week, will improve access to benefits for first responders and law enforcement injured in the line of duty. The bill is co-led in the Senate by Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
“Our first responders and law enforcement officers risk their health and lives to keep us safe,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Protecting America’s First Responders Act establishes a clear framework to ensure our nation’s heroes who have died or become permanently disabled in the line of duty are able to have their disability claims processed in a timely manner, and ensures that their families remain eligible for the additional benefits they’ve been promised. I am proud to have supported this important bill in the Senate, and I hope that the House acts quickly to pass this important bill and sends to President Biden to sign it into law.”
Congress first established the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) 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. However, the program has been marked by delayed adjudication of death and disability claims. In some cases, claims have taken years to process, and a lack of Justice Department guidelines for adjudicating disability claims has led to inconsistent results. To address delays in processing claims, the Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021 (S. 1511) updates the PSOB program’s disability definition to ensure that officers who are permanently unable to secure employment following a catastrophic injury in the line of duty remain eligible for benefits. The bill also expands DOJ’s subpoena authority to more efficiently secure records needed to evaluate claims.
Under the current program, disability or death benefits are provided in the form of a one-time lump sum payment, which is adjusted yearly based on the consumer price index. Benefits may also be issued to a surviving spouse or children in the form of monthly education assistance. The Protecting America’s First Responders Act requires the benefit award amount to be based on the date of the adjudication rather than the date of the injury to account for increases in the cost of living that may occur during lengthy adjudication periods.
Senator Gillibrand and Grassley have long fought to reduce delays in processing survivor benefits. In 2017, President Trump signed the Gillibrand-Grassley bill helping families of fallen officers into law. The bill required the Justice Department to post weekly status updates on its website for all pending claims and biannual aggregate statistics regarding these claims. The bill’s provisions applied to all claims pending at the time of the bill’s enactment, in addition to all claims filed after that date.