Congress Passes Legislation to Improve Access to Benefits for Disabled Officers & Their Families
On Wednesday, October 27, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting America’s First Responders Act (S. 1511), which modifies death and disability benefits for law enforcement and other first responders including by increasing some payments and expanding eligibility. The bill, which passed the Senate on June 10th, now heads to President Biden’s desk for signature.
As noted earlier, under current law, the amounts of benefit payments are determined as of the date the person died or suffered an injury resulting in a total disability. Under the bill, both death and total disability benefits would be adjusted annually for inflation, and the benefits for claims that take longer than 365 days to reach a final determination would be set on the date they’re settled.
Protecting America’s First Responders Act Benefits
The measure would expand eligibility for benefits, which the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance administers through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, to include police cadets and firefighters who are primarily engaged in security or traffic management at fire scenes. It would also:
- Stipulate that unauthorized, emergency actions taken outside of a first responder’s jurisdiction would be considered to be in the line of duty for the purposes of death and disability benefits if the individual’s agency certifies that the actions weren’t unreasonable, would have been within the person’s authority within their jurisdiction, and would have resulted in eligibility for benefits in their jurisdiction.
- Modify the definition of “catastrophic injury” to specify that an individual wouldn’t be disqualified from receiving disability benefits if they are able to perform work if the compensation is nominal or honorary, such as work involving little economic value to the employer or that is therapeutic to the person.
- Specify that the bureau has the authority and obligation to use subpoenas to obtain information needed to adjudicate a claim.
- Require, rather than allow, the Justice Department to provide education benefits to the surviving children of first responders killed in the line of duty.
- Double, to $6,000, the cap on interim benefits that can be paid to each family while claims are still pending. That amount would be adjusted annually for inflation.
The bill’s expanded eligibility provisions would cover injuries suffered on Jan. 1, 2008, or later. The other changes would apply to any cases pending on the date of enactment.
Claims regarding individuals who were killed or injured in the line of duty responding to Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could be filed — or refiled if they were previously denied — during a two-year window beginning on the bill’s effective date. If the bill’s changes would result in a greater benefits award, the bureau would pay additional benefits to some Sept. 11 responders or their families who have already received benefits.
Additional Bill Language
The bill also includes language that would extend the period that public safety officers who die or become disabled due to contracting COVID-19 are eligible for benefits. The bill would set the period to end on Dec. 31, 2023, or when the COVID-19 public health emergency expires, whichever is earlier. Under current law, the period is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2021.
Please contact the POAM team if you have any questions or need more information about the Protecting America’s First Responders Act.