Washington, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) today called on the U.S. Department of Justice to implement his Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act, which was signed into law on December 15, 2003.
The act extends federal benefits to survivors of public safety officers killed by heart attack or stroke in the line of duty. Because the Department of Justice has not written regulations that would put the law into effect, more than 135 families have been denied benefits in the two and a half years since the bill became law.
“The brave men and women who serve our communities every day – many who volunteer their time – don’t delay when they get a call from someone in distress. They act immediately,” said Etheridge. “I call on Attorney General Gonzales to stop making excuses, to end the delays and to stop denying these victims’ families their benefits. The Hometown Heroes Act became law two years, six months and 12 days ago. The bereaved families should not have to wait another day.”
Etheridge offered an amendment to the Departments of Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2007 that would have appropriated funding to pay benefits for the 135 officers who have died of heart attacks or strokes since the act became law. Etheridge withdrew the amendment after the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee stated that language will be included in the report accompanying the bill as it heads to conference with the Senate stating that the Appropriations Committee “expects the Department of Justice to work swiftly toward full implementation of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act.”
“I offered this amendment to highlight the Department of Justice’s foot-dragging and delays. The first delay came when they proposed regulations that were in direct contradiction to clear legislative intent. Then came more delays when they quibbled over words and phrasing. The latest excuse is that they are waiting for approval by the Office of Management and Budget. No more excuses,” said Etheridge.
Heart attacks and strokes account for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. Etheridge’s bill was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Union of Police Associations and the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
The act is rooted in North Carolina, born out of a letter written to Etheridge by Mike Williams of Bunnlevel, who worked as the assistant chief of Flat Branch Volunteer Fire Department and in the Office of the State Fire Marshal, and inspired by the death of a North Carolina firefighter. Williams wrote to Etheridge about the story of the late Thomas Earl Brooks, a Lumberton firefighter whose family was denied federal benefits after he died of a heart attack after responding to several calls during his evening shift on January 31, 2002
The Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act
The following is a brief legislative summary of S. 459 (amended version of H.R. 919), the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act.
The Public Safety Officers Benefit Prior to Passage of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act:
* Provides financial assistance to the survivors of public safety officers (including police officers, firefighters and EMS workers) killed in the line of duty, as well as to officers permanently disabled while on the job.
* Assists the survivors of a public safety officer who “has died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty” with a one-time death benefit payment (currently $262,100), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.
* Makes it difficult for families of public safety officers who die of a heart attack or stroke to qualify for benefits because the implementing regulations for the benefit specifically exclude stress and strain as eligible causes of death. While it is possible for some families to receive the benefit, they must go to great lengths to overcome the burden of proof and prove that the heart attack was “direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty” to do so.
The Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act:
* Allows the families of public safety officers who have died from a heart attack or stroke resulting from law enforcement, fire suppression and emergency response actions.
* Presumes that a public safety officer who suffers a fatal heart attack or stroke died as the direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty absent competent medical evidence to the contrary.