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Police, fire benefits still unpaid

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Nearly two years after Congress extended federal death benefits to police and firefighters who have fatal heart attacks or strokes during emergency calls, no money has been distributed to dozens of families who could be eligible for a one-time payment of more than $275,000 each.

Since 1976, the “Hometown Heroes” program has provided payments to the survivors of more than 4,500 federal, state and local police officers and firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty. The death benefit payment was $50,000 when the program began; now it is $275,658. Until Congress expanded the program in 2003, it did not provide payments to officers who had fatal heart attacks or strokes during emergency calls.

No payments have been made in such cases because the Justice Department did not come up with a proposed process for vetting claims until late last month. The process can’t be finalized until after a required period for public comment ends Sept. 26.

“It is disappointing it has taken this long,” says Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., author of the 2003 legislation. He says the survivors of 128 firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians who have died of heart attacks or strokes since the program expanded could be eligible for payments.

Some supporters of the recent legislation say that unnecessary delays by the Justice Department have denied families access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

“The administration has dragged its feet,” says Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “We have people who have been waiting for months. This is ridiculous.”

Domingo Herraiz, director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, rejects the suggestion that the department has been slow to act since Congress expanded the benefits. For two years, he says, the department has been consulting with police and fire organizations to make sure that the process for examining death claims is fair and efficient.

“If we didn’t take the time now (to establish guidelines), it would take twice as long to rule on a case as it came in,” he says.

The department is reviewing 25-30 cases so benefit decisions can be made and payments can begin immediately after the rules are finalized, he says.

Under the amended Hometown Heroes law, heart attacks and strokes are recognized as line-of-duty deaths when officers die during an emergency call or up to 24 hours afterward. Family members or survivors are then eligible for the one-time payment, if approved by the Justice Department.

Among those who could be eligible for payments under the amended law are the family members of Wadena, Minn., police officer Peter Resch.

Resch, 47, had a fatal heart attack May 19, minutes after struggling with a suspect during a domestic disturbance.

Wadena Police Chief Bruce Uselman says Resch is survived by a wife and three children. “I know it sounds like a lot of money,” Uselman says. “But when you begin to add up what it costs for kids’ education and the costs of living over a lifetime, suddenly it’s not.”

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