(Washington, DC) As part of National Police Week, and in honor of fallen law enforcement officers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is leading an effort to hold accountable the Justice Department for its handling of the benefits claims of fallen public safety officers.
The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act was signed into law in 1976 to provide death benefits to survivors of officers who die in the line of duty. Over the years, the law has been amended to provide disability and education benefits, and to expand the pool of officers who are eligible for these benefits. The Grassley-Gillibrand Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act would permanently increase the level of transparency surrounding the program.
“Families of fallen officers deserve fair and timely consideration of their application for these benefits. Unfortunately, these families face years of limbo and lingering uncertainty. They deserve better. And, despite attempts to fix the problems, the delays have gone from bad to worse,” Grassley said. “Our legislation is based on holding the Justice Department accountable through transparency. It’s a basic principle that should guide any federal agency.”
Last month Grassley held a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee to shed light on the length of time it takes the Justice Department to consider benefits claims from the families of fallen public safety officers. According to the most recent data, more than 423 families have been waiting for an answer for more than a year. And, there are currently 175 pending death and disability claims filed on behalf of officers who lost their lives as a result of the September 11, 2001 response efforts that remain unresolved.
Two days after last month’s hearing, where Iowa sheriff Jay Langenbau testified about the 3 ½ year wait for an answer on the benefits claim following his wife’s death, Sheriff Langenbau heard from the PSOB office that his claim had been approved.
“When an Iowan who testifies before the committee suddenly gets his claim answered two days later, after having waited more than 3 years, it tells me that the department can process other claims in a timely manner if properly motivated. I’ll say it again. Transparency leads to accountability,” Grassley said. “The good news is that one family received answers, but there remain hundreds of other claimants waiting for answers.”
Grassley began looking into the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program more than a year ago after constituents informed him that families in Iowa waited more than 3 years to get a decision on benefits claims for their fallen loved ones. Responses from the PSOB office confirmed that problems persisted nationwide, not just in Iowa. Grassley has written six letters to the Justice Department in the last 1 ½ years, asking for status updates on all pending claims. The benefits office cooperated at first, by disclosing the requested information, but Grassley’s most recent letters have gone unanswered.
Grassley’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act 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.
- 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.
Grassley’s statement upon introduction of the bill is below.
Prepared Floor Statement of Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB)
National Police Week
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Mr. President, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation which designated this week as National Police Week.
As part of that tradition, tens of thousands of law enforcement officers have gathered in our nation’s capital to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to this nation.
And I rise today to join these officers in thanking the men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting our communities.
We must never take their sacrifice for granted, and we need to appreciate that their surviving families have suffered real loss.
In recognition of this truth, Congress passed the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act in 1976.
The goal of the law was to provide death benefits to survivors of officers who die in the line of duty.
Over the years, the law has been amended to provide disability and education benefits, and to expand the pool of officers who are eligible for these benefits.
Looking at the 40-year history of this law, the overall intent of Congress is clear.
Families of fallen officers deserve a fair and timely consideration of their application for these benefits.
If we were in their shoes, we would like to receive an answer: either a YES or a NO.
Not years of limbo and lingering uncertainty.
Unfortunately, that is precisely what too many families have had to endure since at least 2003.
All because bureaucrats in the Justice Department failed to get the job done on time.
Three weeks ago, I chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing to examine this problem.
What we found was troubling.
The Justice Department has a goal of processing these claims within 1 year of filing.
However, according to the most recent data, the Justice Department is failing to meet its own 1-year deadline in 61% of the 693 pending death benefit claims.
That’s 423 families who have been waiting for more than a year.
That rate is unacceptable for a program designed to support families of fallen officers.
Somehow, the delays have gone from bad to worse.
The failure rate was 27% for claims that were filed between 2008 and 2013.
It is difficult to understand how that could happen.
For 13 years and counting, since 2003, the delays have persisted despite a 2004 attorney general memorandum, despite a 2007 Judiciary Committee hearing, and despite 3 independent audits recommending corrective action.
Not surprisingly, there have been periodic improvements in timeliness whenever Congress or watchdogs shined light into these delays.
However, these improvements were short-lived.
In 2007, for example, the Justice Department more than doubled its monthly rate of processing claims in the first 2 months following a Judiciary Committee hearing.
However, in the ensuing 5 years, the Inspector General found not only significant delays, but also a serious lack of documentation and data.
I began looking into this program last January after constituents informed me that families in Iowa waited more than 3 years to get a decision.
But the Justice Department’s response to my oversight letters confirmed that these delays persist on a nationwide scale.
For instance, there are currently 175 pending death and disability claims that were filed on behalf of officers who lost their lives as a result of their September 11th response efforts.
This is why I’ve written 6 letters to the Justice Department in the last year-and-a-half, asking for status updates on all pending claims.
Initially, after I sent my first letters, the number of pending claims went down at a steady pace.
More recently, however, the Justice Department has simply failed to respond to my letters.
At last month’s Judiciary Committee hearing, a claimant from Iowa testified about having waited 3.5 years without an answer from the Justice Department.
Two days after that hearing, that claimant got a phone call from the Department saying that the claim had been approved.
What was the Justice Department doing for the past 3-and-a-half years?
And what about the 692 other families who are waiting for a decision?
Families of fallen officers and advocacy groups agree: transparency leads to accountability.
And, the Justice Department should be held accountable for its handling of these claims.
So, based on this 13-year record, I’ve concluded that the best way to ensure timeliness in these claims is to permanently increase the level of transparency surrounding this program.
Today, Senator Gillibrand and I introduced a bill that would do just that.
It’s called the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act.
This bill would require the Justice Department to post on its website, weekly status updates for all pending claims.
This way, the public can evaluate how well the Department is performing under its goal of processing claims within 1-year of filing.
The Justice Department is already posting weekly statistics with respect to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which is a similar program.
So, the Department should be able to do the same with respect to pending Public Safety Officers’ Benefits claims, by posting weekly statistics.
In addition, our bill would require the Justice Department to report to Congress other aggregate statistics regarding these claims, twice a year.
And, the bill would make it easier for the Justice Department to process these claims in other ways.
For example, by allowing the Department to rely on other federal regulatory standards, and to give substantial weight to findings of fact of state, local, and other federal agencies.
In short, this is a simple, bipartisan bill, with narrowly tailored provisions.
Each provision is targeted to specific problems that have been identified over the past 13 years by independent audits, by Committee hearings, by advocacy groups, and by families of fallen officers.
I want to thank Senator Gillibrand for working with me to develop this common-sense legislation.
And, I urge my colleagues to stand with us in support of these officers and their families.
Help us get this bill done, as our way of saying thank you to these men and women.
I yield the floor.