Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Local Lawmaker Asks US Attorney General To Expedite Claims For Emergency Workers

US Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) is urging U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to expedite all outstanding claims under the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act. Three years after the bill, first introduced by Etheridge, became law, the Department of Justice has approved only two claims out of almost 250 applications. "It is unacceptable for the families of our nation's first responders to be treated with such disregard. They have waited too long," Rep. Etheridge said. In a letter to Gonzales, Etheridge expressed concerns that the Department of Justice may be intentionally misinterpreting the intent of Congress by rejecting 38 claims and failing to issue decisions on 210 others. Etheridge asked Gonzales to expedite all pending claims and to explain why more than three zones of the applications have been rejected. The law extends federal survivor benefits to the families of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers who die of heart attack or stroke in the line of duty. Many families have been waiting for a decision from the department on their claims since the bill became law in December 2003. The legislation was intended to create a presumption that the heart attack or stroke was caused by work in the line of duty, unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. However, the Department has placed an unnecessary burden on applicants by requiring 10 years of medical history. Heart attacks and strokes account for nearly half of firefighter deaths each year. A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health on March 22 found that firefighters face a much higher risk of death from a heart attack than the general population - up to 100 times greater when battling a fire. Etheridge's bill was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Union of Police Associations and the Congressional Fire Services Institute. The legislation is rooted in North Carolina , born out of a letter written to Etheridge by Mike Williams of Bunn Level, who worked as the assistant chief of Flat Branch Volunteer Fire Department and in the Office of the State Fire Marshal, who was inspired by the death of a North Carolina firefighter.


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