DOJ urged to approve Hometown Heroes claims

Washington, D.C — U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) is pressing the Department of Justice to swiftly process outstanding claims under the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act.

The act extends federal benefits to survivors of public safety officers killed by heart attack or stroke in the line of duty. Almost four years after the President signed the bill into law, the department has only decided 57 claims, with 199 claims still undecided.

“I offered this amendment to force the Administration to do right by the widows and orphans of fallen public safety officers. For almost four years, the Department of Justice has dragged its feet and failed to provide the benefits owed under law to the families of the men and women who died in the line of duty,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge.

“We owe our first responders no less than to ensure that their loved ones are taken care of, should they fall while protecting our communities. Their families should not have to jump through hoops to receive what they are owed.”

Etheridge offered an amendment to the Department of Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that would allow the Department of Justice to double staff in the Public Safety Officer Benefits office, which processes Hometown Heroes claims. The amendment passed by a vote of 421 to 2. The act became law in December 2003, but the department waited until September 11, 2006, to release the regulations to put the law into effect. Since September the department has approved only 10 claims.

“Congress passed the Hometown Heroes Act to expedite cases and streamline the process. Instead, there has been delay after delay and excuse after excuse from the Department of Justice. By allowing the PSOB office to double its staff, my amendment says ‘no more excuses.'”

Heart attacks and strokes account for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. 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