Dr. Ruiz Sends Letter to the Department of Justice Urging Action to Protect Benefits for Families of Fallen Police Officers

May 16, 2019
Press Release
The letter cites widespread delays in the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program, which provides benefits to the families of fallen officers

Washington, D.C. – Today, Representative Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-Palm Desert) sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging the Department to address widespread delays in the administration of benefits to the families of fallen police officers. As of April 2019, hundreds of families across the nation have yet to receive benefits for their death, disability, or education claims through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) Program.

“Families of fallen officers make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our communities. They grieve, they suffer, they lose financial stability – but they are denied timely access to the resources that allow them to get their lives back on track,” said Dr. Ruiz. “I have personally heard from constituents affected by these delays, who can lose out on thousands of dollars while waiting years for benefits that are insufficient for them to pay their bills and afford their children’s education. As a nation, we can and must do better to provide the families of fallen officers with the benefits they have earned and deserve.”

“The first year after your hero has fallen is usually the most difficult time for families,” said Gloria Vega, the mother of officer Lesley Zerebny. “Having the claim be processed in a timely manner helps with families who are in need of the financial support and security it brings to allow us to grieve in the manners in which we need. Some are left without a means of support to pay for common necessities, without insurance for counseling, or left without compensation for the moments when grief has struck you immobile and you need to take time off work. Having the claim would, could and will lessen the stress in those scary and dark times.”

“To say our family has been devastated and crushed beyond words is an understatement. To make matters worse, many families struggle to live and take care of their children because they were dependent on their spouse’s income,” said Dr. Matt Zerebny, the father-in-law of fallen officer Lesley Zerebny. “They don’t have the ability to just grieve because now they have a second nightmare on top of the first one. Families don’t need this money one-to-five years from now – they need it now. These heroes, like our Lesley, gave their lives and shed their precious blood for complete strangers. We owe it to them to take care of their families when they’re experiencing unimaginable grief. Thank you [Dr. Ruiz] for all you have done for our families. I wish all politicians had your compassionate heart to help their constituents when they are going through an indescribable tragedy like what our fellow fallen heroes’ families are experiencing.”

Background

On May 16, 2019, Congressman Raul Ruiz sent a letter to the Department of Justice regarding widespread delays preventing families of fallen officers from efficiently receiving their benefits through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program. The letter requests a detailed account of how the Department has incorporated previous recommendations from the Government Accountability Office and the Department’s own Inspector General, as well as how they have implemented legislation to improve the program’s efficiency and address the enduring backlog of active cases.

The PSOB Program was established in 1976 to encourage more people to enter the public safety officer workforce by providing them with assurances that their families would receive a fair death and education benefit if they are killed in the line of duty.

Earlier this year, Congressman Raul Ruiz introduced H.R. 1210, the Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gilbert Vega First Responders Survivors Support Act. The bipartisan bill would update the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) Program so that grieving families of fallen heroes have the support they need to pay off their debt, pursue an education, and get back on their feet. The bill is named after fallen Palm Springs Police Officers Gil Vega and Lesley Zerebny, who were killed in the line of duty in October of 2016.

Many families of fallen officers are struggling to make ends meet because the PSOB Program has not kept pace with the cost of living. Furthermore, red tape and bureaucratic delays can prevent families from accessing their benefits for years, causing families to permanently lose out on as much as $10,000.

You can read the full text of the letter below.

 

May 16, 2019

 

The Honorable William Barr

The Attorney General

Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20530

 

Dear Attorney General Barr,

 

We write to you today regarding the widespread delays that the families of fallen police officers and other first responders experience in receiving their benefits through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) Program. This program provides essential benefits to assist grieving families, and we are concerned that delays in approving benefits is reducing the efficacy of the program.

As of April 19, 2019, there were 333 pending PSOB death claims and more than 200 pending claims for disability and education benefits. Some of these cases date back as far as 2008, and more than a hundred claims sit at the initial level of review more than a year after they were filed. The principal point of the PSOB program is to provide families with the resources they need to get their lives back on track in the aftermath of a traumatic event, a goal that is rendered moot when benefits are withheld for such extensive periods of time.

It has been more than a decade since the GAO first studied the PSOB program and issued recommendations designed to expedite the benefit approval process. In 2015, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General also conducted a review and discovered certain deficiencies that urgently needed to be addressed. In addition, in June 2017, Congress passed the “Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Improvement Act” (Public Law 115-36), which contained several provisions to streamline the benefits process. In spite of this continued focus on improving the PSOB program, persistent delays and a large backlog make clear that the DOJ has not adequately addressed some of the outstanding issues in benefit approval.

Please respond to this letter by June 21, 2019 with a detailed account of how the Department has incorporated the recommendations issued by the GAO and the DOJ OIG, as well as an update on the Department’s implementation of Public Law 115-36. In addition, please provide information on whether the steps taken, including implementation of the June 2018 final rule, have resulted in any meaningful reduction in benefit approval times.

Law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and other first responders keep our communities safe and often do so at great risk to their own lives. The PSOB program provides support and peace of mind for families in the event that their loved ones do not come home at the end of the day. Any unwarranted delay in providing these benefits to the families of first responders who have sacrificed their lives is unacceptable.

We appreciate your attention to this incredibly important issue and hope to continue working together to ensure our nation provides first responders and their families with the benefits they have earned and deserve.

 

Sincerely,

 

Raul Ruiz, M.D.

Member of Congress

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