Probe: Fallen firefighters' families wait years for benefits

Investigation found the program mired in delays for more than a decade, despite millions of dollars spent on audits and efforts to hire legal help to speed processing claims

WASHINGTON — A review of 1,500 Public Safety Officers’ Benefits claims filed since 2009 identified significant delays in spite of efforts to improve processing times.

Hundreds of families of first responders who died in the line of duty have waited a year, some several years, for their application to process, according to USA Today. As of August, about 750 families are waiting for answers on their claims for the one-time payment of about $340,000.

The Inspector General of the Department of Justice published the results of an audit of the PSOB and cited three primary factors contributing to the delays in processing claims.

  • Claimants filing incomplete applications, which the audit attributed in part to inadequate application guidance from the PSOB Office.
  • Claimants and agencies being unresponsive to PSOB Office requests for additional information.
  • The PSOB Office not adequately documenting the basis for its initial determination, which led the Office of General Counsel to conduct a complete review of the claim.

The agency said the claims are complex and oftentimes bogged down by families and local public safety agencies not providing enough documentation, according to the report. The program paid survivors $464 million from 2008 to 2013 for death benefits.

"Delays in processing PSOB claims are unacceptable," said National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Kevin D. Quinn. "The families and departments that have to endure a line-of-duty death deserve better than this. No one should be forced to relive the death of a loved one by having to go through a claims process that in far too many cases drags on for years. The NVFC is working with DOJ and our partners in Congress and the fire service to fix this problem."

The NVFC has been in touch with several fire departments that have submitted PSOB claims that have not been paid after one or more years.

Steve Hirsch, NVFC's Kansas director and first vice chair, has been involved with one such claim filed by the Downs (Kan.) Fire Department.

"Firefighter Jimmy Niles died of a heart attack at a house fire on Jan. 18, 2011," Hirsch said. "To this — nearly five years later — Jimmy’s family’s claim is stuck in the system. The United States made a commitment to our firefighters, and to their families, that they would be taken care of if a death in the line of duty struck. That commitment needs to be upheld, not just for Jimmy's family but for all those across America in the same situation."

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