Letter to Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Acting Assistant Attorney General
KERRY PUSHES FOR TIMELY BENEFITS FOR FAMILIES OF FALLEN FIRST RESPONDERS
Senator John Kerry today sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) urging the Department to immediately implement recommendations that came as a direct result of an investigation Kerry requested last year.
In March of 2007, Kerry requested an investigation into DOJ's administration of federal death benefits for the families of 34 eligible firefighters, police officers and other public safety officers who died in the line of duty.
The Inspector General (IG) found that not only did it take 33 months to implement a benefits program for surviving family members but that several additional delays occurred when the program was eventually realized. In addition, some of the claims were found to be denied due to an overly narrow interpretation of the Hometown Heroes Act with respect to what constitutes "non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activity."
"It's unacceptable that families who have lost loved ones in the line of duty should be caught in a sea of red tape. Because of bureaucratic backlogs, some of these families have been waiting for more than four years to receive benefits that they are entitled to receive under the law," said Senator Kerry. "Firefighters, police officers and other public safety officers too often give their lives so others can live. The very least we can do for them is make sure their loved ones receive the benefits they deserve in a timely manner."
Kerry wrote the original letter after learning that the DOJ failed to act on hundreds of claims, saying he was concerned about the integrity of the Department's claims process. He requested an investigation into how the Department handles benefit claims and that it determine why so many claims have gone unanswered.
The text of the letter is as follows:
April 8, 2008
Jeffrey L. Sedgwick Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
Department of Justice
810 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20531
Dear Acting Assistant Attorney General Sedgwick:
In March 2007, I asked the Inspector General for the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into the denial of federal death benefits for families of 34 eligible firefighters, police officers, and other public safety officers who died in the line of duty.
In a report issued last week, the Inspector General confirmed that the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) not only took 33 months to implement the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Program, which was enacted in 2003, but that several additional delays were encountered in the months and years that followed. As a result, OJP had reviewed only 112 of the 291 Hometown Heroes Act death claims as of November 29, 2007, with 65 of the 112 reviewed claims having been denied. Additionally, the report found that at least 19 of the 65 denied claims were due to an overly narrow interpretation of the Hometown Heroes Act with respect to what constitutes "non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activity."
In sum, the Inspector General found that as of November 29, 2007, "OJP had completed only half of the Hometown Heroes Act claims it received in the first 3 years after passage of the Act. Some of the claims that remained pending as of November 2007 had been filed as long ago as 2004."
It is simply unacceptable that families have been waiting over four years to find out if they will actually receive the benefits entitled to them under the law. It is equally disturbing that several applicants were turned away because of a narrow interpretation of Congress's intent. While I am encouraged by the steps you have taken to correct these procedures and to expedite applications process, I strongly urge you to ensure that no applicant received a wrongful denial, and that you take steps to immediately process and approve benefits for the families who have been waiting the longest for a decision.
Finally, the Inspector General's report offered three specific recommendations for further improving the administration of this program: 1.) The Bureau of Justice Assistance should finalize the "Attorney General's Guide to the Hometown Heroes Act." 2.) The OJP Office of General Counsel (OGC) staff attorneys should use the Public Safety Officers' Benefits (PSOB) Office case management system to record their case notes, requests for documentation, and other case-related communication with the PSOB Office. 3.) OJP OGC should establish more definitive performance timelines for attorneys' reviews of PSOB claims to facilitate claims processing.
I urge you to implement these recommendations, and to work with the Inspector General to identify additional strategies for improving this program. The families in need of these benefits have suffered the death of a loved one. At the very least, they are entitled to a timely and accurate response from the federal government.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
John F. Kerry