Legislation to expand first responder disability, death benefits reintroduced in Congress

The Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021 would expand eligibility for benefits and address delays in processing claims

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The Protecting America’s First Responders Act has been reintroduced in Congress. The legislation would expand disability and death benefits for first responders injured or killed in the line of duty.

Photo/DC Fire and EMS

By Laura French

WASHINGTON — The Protecting America’s First Responders Act, which would expand line-of-duty death and disability benefits for first responders, was reintroduced in Congress on Friday.

Sponsored by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), who is co-chair of the Congressional Law Enforcement and Congressional Fire Services Caucuses, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Protecting America’s First Responders Act (PAFRA) of 2021 aims to make improvements to the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB) program by expanding eligibility for benefits and addressing delays in processing claims, according to a press release.

“Our nation has long promised to support those who’ve sacrificed so much to keep our communities safe. But time and again, families seeking federal death or disability benefits face lengthy delays to hear back on their claims, only to face inconsistent and absurd results. This bill ensures that disability claims are adjudicated consistent with Congress’ original intent so that officers and their families can receive the support they’ve been promised,” Grassley said in a statement.

The reintroduced legislation would alter the definition of “disability” so that disabled first responders are no longer required to be completely unable to perform any compensated work in order to qualify for benefits. This means disabled first responders who can still perform work that involves simple tasks, perform work for therapeutic purposes or receive special accommodations to be able to work would still be eligible for benefits, according to Pascrell. This change would also allow 9/11 responders to reapply for benefits under the new standard.

The PAFRA of 2021 would also expand the PSOB program to public safety officers that are not currently covered, including officers who act outside of their jurisdiction in an emergency situation, trainee officers and fire police who handle traffic and scene management. The legislation would also close a loophole that prevents children of first responders who are born after the first responder’s death from receiving education benefits and would require the DOJ to compensate children who ultimately paid for their own education due to delays in the claims process.

To further address lengthy delays in processing benefit claims, the PAFRA of 2021 indexes the award amount to the date of the final determination rather than the date of death or injury for cases that remain pending for more than 365 days. It also increases the interim death benefits amount from $3,000 to $6,000 and ties interim benefits to the consumer price index going forward.

Additionally, the legislation allows the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas to third-party agencies to receive necessary documents earlier in the claims process in order to expedite the process.

“This important legislation will ensure that officers who are disabled in the line of duty are not left behind by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program and that all children of our fallen or disabled heroes are able to benefit from the Public Safety Officers’ Education Assistance Program,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), in a statement. “NAPO supports the efforts of Representative Pascrell and Senator Grassley to ensure that America’s public safety officers, who put their lives on the line every day in service to our nation, get the benefits promised to them.”

In addition to the NAPO, the legislation has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) of the NYPD, International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“PAFRA makes important improvements to the process by which public safety officers are able to access the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Disability Program. It also makes necessary changes to how PSOB claims are paid to the survivors of public safety officers who died of occupational illnesses related to work at Ground Zero after 9/11,” said NVFC Chair Steven W. Hirsch, in a statement. “I am very pleased the PAFRA includes language clarifying that members of volunteer fire departments who perform scene security and traffic management duties at emergency scenes are public safety officers.”

The PAFRA was originally introduced in the 116th Congress and passed in the Senate in May 2019 but never made it out of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

“The Senate passed this language last Congress and I have worked with my House counterparts to allow for quick passage in the House. Our first responders can’t afford to wait any longer,” Grassley stated.