Leahy Introduces Bill To Improve Program That Supports Injured First Responders

WASHINGTON (Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011) – U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation to strengthen and improve a federal program that provides an important safety net for first responders who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.  The legislation is Leahy’s most recent effort to address gaps in the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act (PSOB) that have left some first responders without benefits when they are injured or killed in the line of duty. 

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act was first enacted in 1976, and provides benefits for certain survivors of public safety officers who die or are disabled as a direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty.  The law, however, excludes certain classes of safety officers and trainees.  The legislation proposed by Leahy will fill these gaps and further strengthen the important program, in addition to making some needed improvements to the administration of the program.

“It is difficult to imagine what communities across America would be like without these first responders,” said Leahy.  “From the firefighters in Vermont who race to the scene of a rural fire during a cold winter night, to the ambulance crews providing emergency medical services following a natural disaster in Oklahoma, our dedicated first responders are all connected by their sense of duty and their selflessness in the service of their neighbors.  In Congress, lawmakers have traditionally acted in support of these men and women irrespective of party and we should continue that great tradition.  I hope the Senate will act quickly to pass this important bill.”

The Leahy-authored Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act Improvement Act includes a provision to extend the federal PSOB program to paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work or volunteer for nonprofit ambulance services, and their families, when they are disabled or killed in the line of duty. 

Leahy has in the past proposed legislation to extend these benefits to such volunteers.  He first introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009.  The proposal, named in honor of the Bennington emergency medical technician who was tragically killed in an ambulance accident, would qualify an estimated 1200 Vermont EMS personnel for the PSOB program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, considered the legislation last year, and reported it to the Senate, but further action on the legislation stalled due to Republican objections.

Earlier this year, Leahy offered the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act as an amendment to the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.   However, the future of that legislation remains unclear.

“Each day that passes is another day that Mr. Long’s family, and others who would benefit from this legislation, must live without the assistance this benefit provides,” Leahy said.  “The Public Safety Officer Benefits Act has been in effect for over 30 years, and has brought a measure of security to survivors of fallen first responders.  This longstanding policy is reflective of Congress’ recognition of the importance and necessity of the men and women who commit themselves as firefighters, police officers, and medical responders.”

The Leahy-authored Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act Improvement Act also includes a provision to ensure that a cadet officer killed during a dangerous training exercise would be eligible for benefits under the PSOB program.  The legislation includes provisions to lessen the length of a currently unwieldy appeals process for claimants, clarify the list of eligible survivor beneficiaries, and make those who have been catastrophically injured eligible for peer support and counseling programs.  It removes artificial distinctions under the Hometown Heroes Act to expand the types of injuries that would make a public safety officer’s survivors eligible for benefits. 

The bill is cosponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

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