Police, firefighter survivors wait years for death benefit

Police, firefighter survivors wait years for death benefit

02 September 2015

published by www.usatoday.com 

USA: — It’s been almost five years since a brush fire pickup lunged forward and crushed volunteer firefighter Leonard Murray, killing him. But the Indiana man’s family continues to wait for an answer from the federal government about whether they will or won’t get a one-time death benefit meant to help the survivors of fallen public safety officers.

Hundreds of families have waited for a year — and sometimes several years — for action from the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Programs set up in 1976 to help out families of police, firefighters and other emergency workers who die in the line of duty or after severely stressful events on the job.

A USA TODAY Media Network investigation, including a review of almost 1,500 claims filed by families since 2009, found the program mired in delays for more than a decade despite millions of dollars spent on outside audits and efforts to hire extra legal help to speed up processing languishing claims. As of August, about 750 families were caught waiting for answers on their claims for the one-time payment of about $340,000.

To measure the scope of delays, USA TODAY obtained from the Justice Department the tracking records for 1,499 claims over five years and found:

    -In more than 900 cases the agency closed as of April, the average time to review a case and make a decision was 391 days, which is longer than the agency’s goal of one year. In fact, 42% of those cases last more than a year. Almost 100 families waited more than two years, and 25 waited three-plus years.

    -In more than 500 cases that were still listed as pending as of this spring, 71% of survivors already had been waiting more than a year for a decision. Almost 200 families had been waiting for at least two years and four dozen families had been waiting at least four years.

The agency that reviews the claims says the cases are complex and are sometimes bogged down by families and local public safety agencies not providing adequate documentation. The program paid survivors $464 million from 2008 to 2013 for death benefits.

“Excuses at this point don’t meet the smell test,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has pushed for investigations of the program and faster answers for surviving families. “The families of these fallen officers deserve timely answers. And, after decades of existence, and numerous independent reports outlining serious deficiencies in the process, the office doesn’t have a legitimate answer for why it allows so many of these cases to languish.”

Repeated efforts to speed up the processing of claims hasn’t been cheap either. The PSOB program hired contractors three times since 2009, signing $24.9 million in contracts for outside attorneys to help review claims, according to a Justice Department memo submitted to Grassley’s office.

A long-known problem

The Justice Department has known about the problems for more than a decade. In 2004, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the agency to make decisions on the safety officer survivors’ claims within 90 days. The program never came close to abiding that order.

Then, in 2009, the Government Accountability Office found the death claims were taking about a year to process and called on the Justice Department to track each step more closely and to improve how the PSOB interacts with survivors and the local public safety agencies that employed the fallen officers. Again in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder called for streamlining the claims process. And earlier this year, the Justice Department pushed the program into a formal business improvement process.

In July, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued yet another audit of the program’s delays. This review found the program provides poor instructions to survivors filing claims, including not making it clear to applicants the kinds of documents they needed to submit in order to qualify. The audit also faulted the agency for poor tracking of claims and said that because reviewers’ didn’t document the reasons for approving and denying claims in case files, mandatory attorney reviews were taking longer because lawyers were forced to redo parts of the investigation, ask more follow-up questions and request documents that should have been included from the start.

Additionally, the auditors found that sometimes the agency’s questions or requests for more documentation to back up the death claims went unanswered by survivors and local public-safety agencies that employed the deceased officers.

The agency itself noted missing information from applicants and local agencies, including important medical and investigative documents needed to determine if an officer’s death qualified for the federal payment. The “complex fact patterns” of cases also can cause delays, according to the agency.

Administrators say improvements are underway. The agency revised its claims instructions to clearly identify required supporting documents. The agency said it also established a new “abandonment policy” for claims where claimants and agencies are unresponsive to requests for documentation for long periods of time, said Joan LaRocca, a Justice Department spokeswoman. Auditors had recommended doing so because it would allow the agency time to be focused on expediting active claims.

Each year between 140 and 160 officers are killed while on duty. But felony cases like the recent high-profile killings in Houston and Fox Lake, Ill. are resolved quicker than others, records show.

While families wait for a decision, they can face financial uncertainty having lost a primary breadwinner, said Laurie Putnam, director of survivor support at Concerns of Police Survivors’ national office in Missouri. She helps survivors file claims and checks on about 60 pending claims every month. She tells survivors it will take one to three years.

“I don’t want people to hope for a three-month resolution,” Putnam said, adding that bills stack up during the wait.
The wreckage of the helicopter that Missouri Highway

Complex cases

Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Joe Schuengel, 47, died when his Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter crashed into a subdivision in 2010 after running low on fuel. His family filed a claim for the death benefit in early 2011, and their case illustrates the kinds of complications present in some death benefit claims.

A year after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report that the crash was caused by low fuel and blamed the pilot. However, investigators also found traces of antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory medications in the pilot’s system, which they said should have medically disqualified him from being licensed to fly. It wasn’t until April of this year, almost five years after the crash, that Schuengel’s family got a decision from the federal benefits office. The government denied the family’s claim.

“There was no back and forth, no periodic updates, no contact with the Department of Justice. We periodically contacted the patrol and requested updates,” said Suzanne Shoemaker, one of Schuengel’s sisters. The family appealed the decision in July. They believe the crash was caused by a defective aircraft and that the NTSB “vilified” their brother in its final report, influencing the PSOB’s decision about whether the family should receive benefits for his line-of-duty death.

“The family believes there are many unanswered questions, but because Joe took an antidepressant and was a happy, peaceful, well-adjusted man flying a 30-year-old defective helicopter, the NTSB blamed the pilot and stated the crash was due to pilot error,” Shoemaker said.

PSOB benefit rules disqualify benefits for officers whose deaths were caused by intentional misconduct, gross negligence or intoxication.

A “non-routine stressful event”

On his ninth consecutive shift, Boulder County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office Deputy Stuart Holt, 55, transported high-risk inmates from court appearances to jail last June. Covering extra assignments was the norm for the retired U.S. Army major. This time, however, he returned home from work and had a heart attack.

The PSOB program also handles cases under the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act, which allows surviving families to collect the same benefits as officers killed in the line of duty if they were the victim of a heart attack, stroke or vascular rupture suffered within 24 hours of a “non-routine stressful event” on the job.

In addition to the string of long patrol shifts, the Saturday before Holt’s death, he and his wife Shirley were first on the scene of a pickup truck crash into a creek. A 13-year-old girl drowned in the swift water, which hit the 18-year veteran deputy hard.

Tom Shomaker, the undersheriff in Boulder County, moved swiftly with Holt’s family to file paperwork for the Hometown Heroes benefit. They’ve been waiting for an answer for nearly a year.

“I think we crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is we needed to,” Shomaker said. “The heart attack came out of nowhere. He was in great shape. If his string of shifts doesn’t qualify for stressful events, I’m not sure what would.”

Holt’s wife Shirley, who has since moved to California, said the process has been frustrating.

“The PSOB office warned me that it might take two years when we applied,” she said. “I haven’t heard a word from them in a while.”

She said the money would go to help support their 24-year-old daughter Samantha. That’s what Stuart Holt would be doing if he were alive and working.

“You want to help your daughter as they’re getting started.” Holt said. “He would have wanted to keep supporting her now that she just graduated college.”

Confusion and compliance

Confusion was routine for the claim of Leonard Murray, 53, a volunteer firefighter who was pinned against a wall by a truck in the fire department’s maintenance garage in rural Nashville, Ind., 60 miles south of Indianapolis. The accident happened in November 2010. The department and Murray’s wife are still waiting for an answer from PSOB about whether he’s eligible for the death benefit.

“Every time you have to go back and find more forms you have to bring it up, it’s like pouring salt in an open wound,” Fire Chief Glenn Elmore said. “I feel like we owe it to Len and his widow to keep checking on its status and stay with it.”

Elmore took the lead on filing the claim, but said it took considerable effort to track down key pieces like a coroner’s report and the investigative findings of the incident.

“We submitted the pile of paperwork and this money should go to his wife,” Elmore said.

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