Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On the The 10th Anniversary of the Passage of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act Senate Floor

Today I am proud to recognize the 10th anniversary of the enactment of the “Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act” which occurred this past Saturday.  Back in 2003, I worked with a bipartisan group of senators to pass this legislation to improve the Department of Justice's Public Safety Officers' Benefits (PSOB) program by allowing families of public safety officers who suffer fatal heart attacks or strokes to qualify for federal survivor benefits. I am proud to mark the 10-year anniversary of this important program. 

I first want to thank each of our Nation’s brave law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical responders for the work they do for the American public each and every day.  This legislation, like the Public Safety Officers Benefits program, is for them.  It is Congress’ recognition of the importance of their service to their communities and to the Nation. 

Our public safety officers are often the first to respond to a crime scene or emergency situation.  They are often the first line of defense in a natural disaster or national security emergency.  They are among our most courageous and dedicated public servants.  I applaud their efforts in responding to more than 240 million emergency calls each year - whether those calls involve a fire, crime, medical emergency, natural disaster, or act of terrorism - without hesitation.  They act with a steadfast commitment to the safety and protection of their fellow citizens and sadly, sometimes lose their own lives in the protection of their communities. 

Each year, hundreds of public safety officers nationwide lose their lives and thousands more are injured while performing their duties.  And while these benefits can never be a substitute for the loss of a loved one, the families of all these fallen heroes deserve this financial support from the Federal government.

The PSOB program was established in 1976 to authorize a one-time financial payment to the eligible survivors of federal, state, and local public safety officers who die in the line of duty. While there had been various efforts over the years to improve the program leading up to 2003, the benefits did not extend to officers suffering a fatal heart attack or stroke from a work-related, non-traumatic injury, such as stress or strain from the job.

The Hometown Heroes Act of 2003 expanded PSOB coverage to ensure that the survivors of public safety officers who die of heart attacks or strokes in the line of duty or within 24 hours of a triggering effect while on duty - regardless of whether a traumatic injury is present at the time of the heart attack or stroke - are eligible to receive financial benefits. Ensuring public safety is dangerous, grueling, and stressful work.  A first responder’s chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke exponentially increases when he or she puts on heavy equipment and rushes into a burning building or gets into a shootout with dangerous criminals. Since enactment of the Hometown Heroes law, the Department of Justice has approved 373 claims.  This is 373 families who have received this important support in the face of a tragedy.  The families of these brave public servants deserve coverage under the PSOB program and I am grateful that Congress was able to pass legislation to make sure the law covered these situations.

Over the past few years I have increasingly sought ways to improve the PSOB program. Last year, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, I was successful in adding to that legislation the Dale Long Act. The inclusion of this amendment fixed coverage gaps in the federal PSOB program by extending benefits to private, non-emergency medical services (EMS) volunteers and personnel. In Vermont alone, this change covers an estimated 1,200 EMS personnel for the program. This legislation also streamlined what had been an unwieldy and unnecessarily long appeals process for claimants, clarified the list of eligible survivor recipients, and eliminated an artificial distinction under current law to include vascular ruptures as a type of injury that would make a public safety officer’s survivors qualified for Hometown Heroes benefits.  Since 2012, as a result of the Dale Long Act’s enactment, an additional 23 Hometown Heroes cases have been approved. 

Finally, I want to recognize the outstanding work of Director Denise O’Donnell and her staff at the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Under Director O’Donnell’s leadership, her dedicated staff has put into place significant reforms and improvements to the program that have increased efficiency, transparency, and communication with the survivors of fallen first responders with pending claims. They are putting to good use the new statutory provisions that were enacted as part of the Dale Long Act—provisions that make the program more cost effective and easier for administrators and claimants to find resolution.  As a former prosecutor, Director O’Donnell understands the importance of this program to first responders across the country and she has worked very hard to listen to their concerns and act on them.  I know the staff members within the PSOB program office recognize the solemnity and importance of the work they do and recognize that each case represents a family that has endured a great sacrifice.  They carry out their duties with the respect these cases deserve and I thank them as they continue to carry out the promise Congress made to America’s first responders over 30 years ago. 

Public safety officers are part of the bedrock of our Nation. We must continue to recognize their hard work and selfless dedication to communities across this country and ensure that they and their families have the protections they need and most certainly deserve.


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