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The Honorable Patrick Leahy
United States Senator
Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy,
In November of 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act. This important legislation was intended to improve the Public Safety Officers Benefits program by allowing survivors of first responders who suffer fatal heart attacks or strokes while participating in non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activities to qualify for Federal survivor benefits. That December, with great fanfare, the President signed this legislation into law before a large group of firefighters and law enforcement officers. Then, once the camera lights were turned off, the cases began piling up at the Justice Department.
My frustrations, and the frustrations of the surviving families and the first-responder community grow daily over the Justice Department's glacial processing of these applications. We will hear a sampling of those deep and widespread frustrations today. More than three years passed before the Justice Department released its final implementation rule last year - in effect, delaying implementation of the law and disregarding the clear will of Congress to grant these surviving families death benefits in a timely, fair manner. It is no overstatement to conclude that the Administration has worked to erect obstacles between this program and these surviving family members - not to find ways to help them. These thickets of red tape are a painful indignity to these heroes and their families, and they are an offense to our moral obligation to offer them our help and our thanks for all they do for us, day in and day out.
Now, nearly four years after the Hometown Heroes bill became law, the Justice Department has approved only 12 Hometown Heroes claims, all the while denying 50 families this important benefit, and leaving more than 240 applications unanswered.
Is this any way to treat our first responders, those who Congress has appropriately called our Hometown Heroes? It is disturbingly reminiscent of this administration's inexcusable neglect of the needs of those who have returned from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and of our other veterans. President Lincoln's spoke for the ages in his second inaugural address in1865, in the midst of the Civil War, when he called for binding up the Nation's wounds and caring for those who have borne the battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan. This is the same moral obligation we share when it comes to caring for the families of our first responders.
The Justice Department's adjudication of claims has been nothing but bewildering. It is shocking, for instance, that a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Florida, who was found dead 45 feet behind a fire line with a shovel in his hand, was denied benefits because those managing this program in Washington could not determine whether he was engaged in strenuous activity at the time of his heart attack.
The Justice Department should immediately expedite all of the outstanding Hometown Heroes claims. In light of the fact that so many individuals who should have been deemed eligible were not, the Department should revise the criteria it has used to evaluate claims. The burdensome information requests made of those who file claims, such as 10 years' worth of past medical records, should stop - immediately. Instead of harassing these grieving families, the White House and the Justice Department should remove the bureaucratic hurdles, the lengthy delays, and the other obstacles that have prevented surviving families from receiving the benefits Congress intended. The bottom line is that the needs of first responders and their families simply have not been a high enough priority for this administration. We intend to make them a higher priority. Passage of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act and this hearing are part of that effort.
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