Washington, DC – Bipartisan legislation aimed at helping families of fallen first responders receive the survivor benefits they’d been promised was signed into law. The Public Safety Officers Benefits Improvement Act, led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) reduces processing times through increased transparency of application backlogs.
“I’m very pleased the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act was signed into law,” 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 law will help ensure that the families of fallen first responders finally receive the compensation they deserve and need in a timely and transparent manner.”
“First responders and members of law enforcement often run toward danger to keep our communities safe. Sadly, far too many make the ultimate sacrifice for the public good. As a society, we’ve promised to support the loved ones of these fallen officers. It’s unacceptable that many are left in limbo, for years in some cases, just to hear back on their application for survivor benefits. Our bill, which is now law, shines a light on the Justice Department backlogs so these families can quickly get the answers they deserve and the assistance they’ve been promised,” Senator Grassley said.
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, the PSOB Office had 756 active claims, which had 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 does the following:
- 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;
- requires the Justice Department to utilize all of its investigative authorities before rejecting claims based on lack of information;
- 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; and
- establishes 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.