Justice Department Defies Congress In Delaying PSOB Payments

It has been 3½ years since Congress passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act, which made the families of public safety officers eligible for the federal death benefit if the officers died in the line of duty from a heart attack or stroke. Until then, the Public Safety Officer's Benefit (PSOB) was paid to survivors only if trauma, burns or smoke inhalation was the cause of death - which excluded more than half of all firefighter fatalities. President Bush signed the Act into law at a White House ceremony in December 2003; six months later, then Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered all PSOB cases be resolved within 90 days. There was great hope that a long-standing problem had been corrected.

Sadly, that is not how things have turned out. The intent of Congress and the hopes of the fire-rescue service have been frustrated by the Department of Justice's lengthy delays in implementing the law as Congress wanted it to be. Instead, the Hometown Heroes Act has become tangled in bureaucratic red tape. Fire and police organizations are seeking immediate action to break the barrier and get the PSOB payments ($295,000) to qualified families that are waiting for help.

As this is written, 243 line-of-duty death cases have been filed under the Act, claiming that a heart attack or stroke brought on by the stress of a specific emergency response or training exercise caused the death of a firefighter, rescue worker or police officer. (About two-thirds of the cases involve fire-rescue personnel.) Of the 243 claims that have been filed, only 44 have been adjudicated and only four of those have been accepted as line-of-duty deaths! Forty have been rejected and 201 are somewhere in the pipeline waiting to be decided. That is an astounding 91% rejection rate!

How could this happen? Part of the problem may be unreasonable demands for old medical records and other documentation. Another part seems to be little understanding of what happens to a firefighter when the alarm sounds. Apparently, some cases have been rejected because a hearing officer ruled that a heart attack was brought on by the "routine stress" of firefighting or previous health conditions. What is "routine stress"? Nothing is "routine" from the moment the bell rings in a firehouse or a pager goes off in a volunteer's home. No matter how many times you experience it, there's a rush of adrenaline as an emergency unfolds. Harry Howard, the first chief of New York's paid fire department, observed and wondered why so many of his strong firemen died suddenly of "over-exertion." That was 140 years ago, but the old chief was on to something. Just a few months ago, the Harvard School of Public Health issued a study showing that firefighters were 100 times more likely to die of a heart attack triggered by stress and strenuous demands of their so-called "routine" activities.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (R-NC), who wrote and introduced the Hometown Heroes legislation, accuses the Justice Department of "intentionally misinterpreting the direct, expressed intent of Congress" by failing to award PSOB benefits under the Act. He points out that it was intended to "create a presumption" that death by stroke or heart attack was caused by work performed in the line of duty. "I wrote the law in a very specific way so that survivors would not have to suffer the added burden of bureaucratic hassle," Etheridge explained.

But "bureaucratic hassle" is exactly what they've run up against. There is anger and a determination within the fire service to get the Hometown Heroes cases resolved so that benefits can be paid to qualified survivors without further delay. The heads of six national fire organizations sent a joint letter to President Bush asking for White House help to get the Justice Department moving. Members of Congress have written to Attorney General Alberto L. Gonzales and are drafting their own joint letter to the President to show that the Act still has strong bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats. If that doesn't work, the next step would be congressional oversight hearings to determine what legislative fix may be needed.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice blames the delay on the Act being a new law that "created a mechanism conceptually unlike anything else in the PSOB program." Cases are referred to The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to examine medical records for "competent medical evidence" that might show a line-of-duty death was caused by factors other than work-related stress. They seem to be looking for reasons to reject claims; cases filed under the Hometown Heroes Act have become adversarial proceedings - which is the exact opposite of what Congress intended or the survivors expected.

Many members of Congress have heard from the survivors. "We're not asking for anything we're not entitled to," wrote the widow of a deputy chief who suffered a stroke as he arrived on the scene of a working fire. And, most agree with Congressman Etheridge when he says, "It is unacceptable for the families of our nation's first responders to be treated with such disregard. They have waited too long."

HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.