11.29.16

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Committee on the Judiciary On Senate Passage of S. 2944, Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2016

Today, the Senate reiterates its commitment to our nation’s law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders.  Forty years ago, we created the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB) to support first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice.  We have now passed legislation to make much needed improvements to the claims adjudication process, which for too long has been plagued by red tape and delays.

Today’s legislation builds upon my past efforts to improve the PSOB program.  In 2003, I worked with a bipartisan group of senators to pass the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act, which recognized that law enforcement officers who suffer fatal heart attacks or strokes in the line of duty also deserve benefits.  In 2009, I introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act, which became law in 2012 and extended PSOB benefits to nonprofit Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers.  This change covered an estimated 1,200 EMS personnel in Vermont alone.  Today’s legislation will add transparency to the PSOB’s decision-making process and should help expedite the review of applications for benefits. 

The legislation also includes an amendment I offered in the Judiciary Committee that improved this bill in three important ways.  First, it ensured that children are not disqualified from receiving education benefits due to delays within the PSOB program, which can approach 10 years.  At a Senate Judiciary hearing in April, the Honorable Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, testified that this situation is unconscionable.  I agree.  My amendment ensures it will never happen again.  Second, a fallen officer or first responder’s family should not have their claim denied simply because their employer fails to provide necessary paperwork to the PSOB Office.  My amendment requires that the PSOB Office use every investigative tool it has to obtain what it needs from third parties to process a claim.  This will ensure that officers and their families who are entitled to benefits are not further victimized by delays beyond their control.  Finally, as originally drafted this legislation only applied to claims filed after it becomes law.  I want these improvements to help those currently stuck in the backlog, and my amendment fixed this issue. 

One hundred twenty-three law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty so far in 2016.  These families deserve a working and responsive PSOB program.  This legislation, while only a modest step, demonstrates our shared commitment to those officers and their families.  I urge the House of Representatives to quickly pass this legislation and send it to the President for signature. 

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