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Q: What is the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program?
A: Enacted in 1976, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB) recognizes the full measure of valor and sacrifice our nation’s first responders provide in service to their communities. The PSOB program offers death and education benefits to survivors of fallen public safety officers. Administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, benefits may include a one-time benefit for survivors for death directly resulting from injury in the line of duty. Congress expanded the program in 1990 to include benefits for disability resulting from catastrophic injury in the line of duty that permanently prevents an officer from gainful employment. Survivors also may qualify for tuition expenses for higher education if a parent dies or is permanently disabled in the line of duty.
Q: What reforms are you working to include in this program?
A: For several years, I’ve led bipartisan efforts to ensure this federal program doesn’t leave behind heroes who have sacrificed life and limb in the line of duty. Most recently, I’ve worked to address the backlog riddling the claims process and to improve oversight and transparency so applicants can get timely answers and updates about their claims. An Iowan from Northwood testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing I convened in 2016 to shed light on the problem. He waited three years for an answer from the Justice Department following the death of his wife in 2013. My bipartisan bill to fix flaws in the adjudication of this program was signed by President Trump in 2017. Last year, I followed up with the Justice Department to find out why some claims still were being delayed or denied. I wrote Attorney General Barr to fix ambiguities that led to needless uncertainty for survivors. I followed this up with introduction of bipartisan legislation to address inconsistencies in the adjudication of disability claims. My bill passed unanimously in the Senate last May and awaits action in the House of Representatives. There’s nothing ambiguous when a family’s breadwinner doesn’t return home from his or her shift. It’s emotionally devastating for loved ones and the communities they serve. Society can’t fix a broken heart, but we can fulfill the promises made to our first responders in uniform. Congress approved this federal benefit to give our nation’s first responders peace of mind when they go into harm’s way to protect the public. The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an invisible enemy that poses risk of infection for all Americans, especially our nation’s first responders who continue to report to work to serve their communities. Current PSOB eligibility rules require evidence linking deaths to infectious diseases from work-related exposure. To erase shadows of doubt about whether first responders who contract COVID-19 during this pandemic are eligible for federal survivor and disability benefits, I introduced bipartisan legislation called Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act. It would establish a temporary presumption that COVID-19 infections would be considered contracted while on duty if diagnosed within 45 days of the officer’s last shift. Despite the risk of the virus, our public safety officers continue to answer the call to serve local communities and help citizens in need. My bill recognizes their sacrifice and provides a measure of certainty when they report to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Q: Are COVID-19 victims eligible for the Fallen Heroes Flag program?
A: Whereas the pandemic shut down schools and entire sectors of the nation’s economy, it hasn’t stopped the men and women who serve as first responders in our communities. As always, these front line heroes are on-the-job putting themselves in harm’s way to help others. Congress adopted the Fallen Heroes Flag Act in 2016 to pay tribute to first responders who died in the line of duty, including firefighters, law enforcement officers, members of the clergy, rescue squad or ambulance crew, and public safety officers. From one generation to the next, the Stars and Stripes unite all Americans in times of peril and prosperity, symbolizing the land of the free and home of the brave. For the heroes who lose their lives on-the-job in service to their community, the stitches and stripes of Old Glory memorialize their service and sacrifice to make our neighborhoods safer and stronger. The Architect of the Capitol confirms that a COVID-19-related death of a first responder is eligible for the Fallen Heroes Flag program. A request must be submitted within 180 days of the fallen hero’s death. One request per fallen hero will be fulfilled. Iowans who would like to have a fallen hero from their immediate family recognized with a U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol may contact my office at (202) 224-3744. There is no cost to families who qualify.
President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation designating May 15th as Peace Officers’ Memorial Day to pay tribute to fallen heroes. This year the annual memorial service will recognize 307 fallen officers who have died in the line of duty from the previous year. Due to the pandemic, it will be live-streamed during National Police Week on May 13, 2020 during a virtual Candlelight Vigil in Washington, D.C.