- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Justice Department is processing just over half of death, disability and education benefit claims from police and firefighters within its one-year goal — despite an infusion of cash meant to resolve backlogs and a series of reports issued over the last decade documenting inefficiencies in the process.

DOJ and public safety officials appeared before Congress on Tuesday to discuss the delays that have at times left first responders or their families waiting for years before getting payments through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program.

Among those who described the long wait for a decision was an Iowa sheriff who said he and his four children have waited more than three years to be approved for benefits since the death of his wife. Shelly Lair-Langenbau, a volunteer firefighter and flight nurse, was killed in an air ambulance helicopter crash in 2013.

Sheriff Jay Langenbau, of Worth County, Iowa, said he initially submitted paperwork to the benefit office two months after his wife’s death, but was told the office could not process the claim until a National Transportation Safety Board report was finalized — a process that took two years.

Only after that did officials from the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit office begin to try to verify basic information included in the claim, he said. As recently as November, Sheriff Langenbau was asked to resubmit paperwork to support the claim. As of April 4 the claim was still pending, he said.

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general with the Office of Justice Programs, apologized for the delay as she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “There is no sufficient justification,” she said of the three-year wait.

Ms. Mason said the benefit office plans to have new technology in place by November that will help to better track the time it takes to complete portions of the claim review in order to identify bottlenecks and to streamline the whole process. The new technology will also make the process more transparent to claimants by providing a way to check on the status of claims online.

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program provides onetime payments of $340,000 to families of police, firefighters and emergency workers who die in the line of duty or are “catastrophically” injured while on the job. Education benefits are also available to children of those injured or killed.

“Knowing that this benefit is out there helps to ease the stress and burdens of adjusting to a new life, especially in the first few months following a tragedy like the death of a loved one,” Sheriff Langenbau said. “It would be helpful for me to be able to tell colleagues that they can expect to receive assistance from the PSOB office within a few months, rather than three-plus years, in the event of a tragedy.”

Officials have been aware of delays in the program for years, and tried multiple times to address the long wait times.

Ms. Mason noted the DOJ Inspector General’s 2015 report on the program found that of the 1,850 death and disability claims on file that had been decided, the PSOB office made a determination within a year of filing in 1,038 cases, or 56 percent of the time. Another 650 cases were pending, at least half of which were more than a year old.

“Data shows that we have taken longer than we should to resolve these claims,” Ms. Mason said.

As of April 19, Ms. Mason said the office had 814 active death and disability claims. Of those, 338 were in the initial stages of processing and awaiting the receipt of basic documents, another 122 were under active review by hearing officers, and 45 had been appealed.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Judiciary Committee chairman, said that the delays have persisted even despite an infusion of cash that was meant to pay outside contractors to help tackle the backlog of cases.

“Somehow, the situation at the PSOB Office has gone from bad to worse. It is hard to understand how that could happen,” the Iowa Republican said. “Since 2009 DOJ spent over $22 million paying outside contractors to help. This was supposed to speed up the claims process. Clearly, it did not.”

The amount spent on hiring contractors was equal to the amount in death benefits that could have been paid out to 63 families, Mr. Grassley noted. “That seems like awfully expensive paper pushing,” he said.

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