ON THE RECORD/A helping hand for hometown heroes
On Dec. 15, President Bush signed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003. The law expands the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program to provide for the families of public safety officers who die from heart attacks or strokes that stem from arduous line-of-duty activities. Qualifying families are eligible for a one-time payment of $267,494. Among the bill’s sponsors is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who explains how the legislation aids the families of fallen public safety officers and how legislators addressed concerns about the benefits.
Q: What inspired you to sponsor the act?
Sen. Leahy: Families of these fallen heroes rarely [have been] eligible to receive Public Safety Officers Benefits (PSOB). For example, in January 1978, Special Deputy Sheriff Bernard Demag of the Chittenden County, Vt., Sheriff’s Office suffered a fatal heart attack within two hours of his chase and apprehension of an escaped juvenile he had been transporting. The Demag family spent nearly two decades fighting in court for workers’ compensation death benefits to no avail.
Q: Describe the arguments made opposing the bill, and how did you rebut them?
A: The intent of the legislation always was to cover officers who suffered a heart attack or stroke as a result of non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activity. As [it was] drafted and passed by the Senate by unanimous consent on May 16, 2003, however, members of the House Judiciary Committee felt the bill’s language would cover officers who merely happened to suffer a heart attack or stroke while at work. A substitute amendment to address those concerns [was worked out]. The Department of Justice (DOJ) initially opposed the bill, arguing that passage of Hometown Heroes would alter the PSOB regulations for eligibility “drastically by creating a broad presumption that any heart attack or stroke suffered while on duty is the direct and proximate result of a line-of-duty action.” DOJ did not want to see the PSOB program turned into “an insurance program.” [The supporters of the bill] were willing to negotiate with the bill’s critics to craft bipartisan compromise language. We came up with the phrase “non-routine stressful or strenuous physical” to pinpoint those activities during which public safety officers may suffer fatal heart attacks or strokes, so that their survivors would be able to qualify for federal survivor benefits.
Q: What specific criteria will determine who receives the benefits?
A: The law creates a presumption that an officer died as a direct and proximate result of a heart attack or stroke sustained in the line of duty if the following is established:
that officer participated in a training exercise that involved non-routine stressful or strenuous physical activity, or responded to a situation and such response involved non-routine stressful or strenuous activity;
that officer suffered a heart attack or stroke while engaging or within 24 hours of engaging in that physical activity; and
such presumption cannot be overcome by competent medical evidence.
“Non-routine stressful or strenuous physical” actions include, but are not limited to, a physical struggle with a suspected or convicted criminal; a search-and-rescue mission; and fire suppression.