Etheridge asks for change on Hometown Heroes

Washington, D.C. -— U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) today asked U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to reverse the Justice Department’s history of inaction and delay concerning the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act.

Four years after the act, first introduced by Etheridge, became law the Department of Justice has approved only 35 claims out of 279 applications.

“I urge Attorney General Mukasey to ensure that the survivors of our men and women who gave their lives in defense of their communities receive the benefit they deserve in a timely manner without undue burdens,” said Etheridge. “I know that the Attorney General has many concerns on his agenda, but I ask that he makes the concerns of public safety officers’ families one of his highest priorities.”

In a letter to Mukasey, Etheridge told the Attorney General about the Justice Department’s past inaction on Hometown Heroes claims under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Justice Department took almost three years to write the regulations that would allow the law to take effect, and then appeared to be intentionally misinterpreting the intent of Congress when they approved only six claims in the first nine months the law was enacted.

In October, Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Domingo Herraiz issued two policy memoranda that appeared intended to expedite processing of Hometown Heroes claims. Following the memoranda, the number of claims processed and approved increased. Etheridge asked the Attorney General to continue this progress and not to revert to the delays that have plagued the Department since the law’s passage.

The law extends federal survivor benefits to the families of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers who die of heart attack or stroke in the line of duty. Many families have been waiting for a decision from the department on their claims since the bill became law in December 2003.

The legislation was intended to create a presumption that the heart attack or stroke was caused by work in the line of duty, unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Until October the Department had placed an unnecessary burden on applicants by requiring 10 years of medical history.

Heart attacks and strokes account for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health on March 22 found that firefighters face a much higher risk of death from a heart attack than the general population — up to 100 times greater when battling a fire. 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.

This legislation 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.