Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Senate Passage of S. 2944, Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2016

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

July 12, 2016

Our nation’s law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders face threats every day to ensure the safety and security of our communities. Last week’s senseless attack in Dallas is yet another painful reminder of dangers faced by law enforcement. Today the Senate came together in support of legislation to improve the Public Safety Officers Benefit Program (PSOB). This program was created by Congress 40 years ago to support first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice, and it is the program to which the families of those slain in Dallas may now turn.

I have long worked 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, covering an estimated 1,200 EMS personnel in Vermont alone.

This legislation will add transparency to the PSOB’s decision-making process and should help expedite the review of applications for benefits. Adjudications with the PSOB program have long been plagued by delays, often lasting years. The legislation also includes an amendment I offered in the Judiciary Committee that will improve this bill in three important ways.

First, it will ensure 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, a law enforcement official described this as unconscionable. I agree. My amendment will ensure it never happens. 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 will ensure that the PSOB program uses every investigative tool it has to obtain what it needs from third parties to process a claim, so that officers and their families who are entitled to benefits are not further victimized by delays beyond their control. Finally, as 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.

Sixty one law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty so far in 2016. I know all of us agree that each of these families deserves a working and responsive PSOB program. This legislation, while only a modest step, demonstrates our commitment to those officers and their families.

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