WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee today approved legislation to reduce the wait time for families of fallen officers that have applied for death benefits.  The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act, which was introduced by Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), was reported to the full Senate by a vote of 20-0.
 
“Families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while protecting and serving our communities deserve the support of a grateful nation.  But many families that apply for death benefits are left in limbo, sometimes for years, while the Justice department reviews their application.  We’ve found that a little bit of transparency goes a long way to getting the families the answers they deserve and the benefits they’ve been promised.  This bill requires the Justice Department to regularly publish status updates for pending cases. It also establishes new protections for families seeking benefits and grants the department new tools to process claims more efficiently. The Senate and House should now move promptly to pass this bill and provide the families of these officers the certainty they deserve,” Grassley said.
 
“I’m very pleased that the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits bill passed unanimously out of committee today,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Now we are one major step closer to giving the families of fallen public safety officers the support and resources they need when their loved ones lose their lives as a result of their work. I look forward to seeing this bill come to the Senate floor soon for a vote, and I urge all of my colleagues to support it.”
 
The bipartisan bill would:
  • Require the Justice Department to post on its website, weekly status updates for all pending claims.
  • Require the Justice Department to report to Congress other aggregate statistics regarding these claims, twice a year.
  • Creates a rebuttable presumption that the family is not disqualified from recovering a benefit.  The presumption can be rebutted only by clear and convincing contrary evidence.
  • Allow the Justice Department to rely on other federal regulatory standards.
  • Allow for the Justice Department to give substantial weight to findings of fact of state, local, and other federal agencies. 
The Senate passed similar legislation last year.  The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act was introduced this year by Grassley and Gillibrand, and is cosponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
 
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to shed light on the length of time it takes the Justice Department to consider death benefits claims from the families of fallen public safety officers.  At the end of the July to December 2016 reporting period, there were 792 active claims with the PSOB Office.  Claims active during the reporting period sat pending for an average of 744 days. 
 
At the hearing, Northwood, Iowa, Sheriff Jay Langenbau testified that his family had been waiting for more than three years for the Justice Department to approve an application for death benefits following the 2013 death of his wife in a medical helicopter accident.  Two days following Langenbau’s public testimony, the Justice Department finally approved his benefits application.
 
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