WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to fix deficiencies in a federal benefit program that are preventing first responders with certain injuries from receiving benefits intended by Congress. The Protecting America’s First Responders Act would allow the Justice Department (DOJ) to grant benefits to first responders who are disabled under the common use of the term by updating vague definitions in the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program that may be leading to delayed or inconsistent adjudication of disability claims. The bill follows a 2017 initiative led by the senators and signed by President Trump to address long waits for benefits issued to families of officers killed in the line of duty.
“Our nation has long promised to support those who’ve sacrificed so much to keep our communities safe. But time and again, families seeking federal death or disability benefits face lengthy delays to hear back on their claims, only to face inconsistent and absurd results. This bill ensures that disability claims are adjudicated consistent with Congress’ original intent so that officers and their families can receive the support they’ve been promised,” Grassley said.
“Our first responders have a dangerous job and they take extraordinary risks to keep the rest of us safe. When tragedy strikes and a first responder loses their life or becomes disabled because of their heroic work, Congress has a responsibility to look out for their family in return. I am proud to join Senator Grassley in introducing the bipartisan Protecting America’s First Responders Act. This bill would make sure that the families of our fallen 9/11 heroes and so many other brave first responders are receiving compensation from the government that reflects what they and their children need. I urge my colleagues to do the right thing, fight with me for our first responders, and quickly pass this bipartisan bill,” Gillibrand said.
Congress established the PSOB 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. However, the program has been marked by delayed adjudication of death and disability claims. In some cases, claims have taken years to process. A lack of DOJ guidelines for adjudicating disability claims has also resulted in PSOB benefits being denied to officers whose work-related injuries would result in a disability determination under the Social Security Administration’s guidelines.
The Protecting America’s First Responders Act ( S. 1208) updates the PSOB program’s definition of disability to ensure that officers who are permanently unable to secure meaningful gainful employment following a catastrophic injury in the line of duty remain eligible for benefits. Applicants who have been denied benefits in the past three years would be able to re-apply using the updated definition.
To address delays in processing claims, the bill expands DOJ’s subpoena authority to more efficiently secure records needed to evaluate claims.
Under the current program, disability or death benefits are provided in the form of a one-time lump sum payment, which is adjusted yearly based on the consumer price index. Benefits may also be issued to a surviving spouse or children in the form of monthly education assistance. The Protecting America’s First Responders Act requires the benefit award amount to be based on the date of the adjudication rather than the date of the injury to account for increases in the cost of living that may occur during lengthy adjudication periods. The bill also guarantees retroactive education assistance for eligible survivors who pay out-of-pocket education expenses while awaiting the adjudication of a claim.
The Protecting America’s First Responders Act is supported by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the Sergeants Benevolent Association of NYPD and Wounded Blue. Text of the legislation is available HERE.
Grassley recently raised concern with DOJ that a lack of formal guidelines for adjudicators could be leading to inconsistent findings when processing disability claims
In 2017, Grassley and Gillibrand partnered to address long waits for adjudication of PSOB death benefits through improved transparency. Their bill is now law.