PALM SPRINGS — On Oct. 8, 2018, the second anniversary of the deaths of Officers Gil Vega and Lesley Zerebny, U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., CA-36, announced additional support for H.R. 5060, the Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gilbert Vega First Responders Survivors Support Act.
Ruiz also discussed next steps for advancing the bill. The bipartisan bill was originally introduced in February of this year, and has steadily gained bipartisan support in Congress. It now has the support of 22 members of Congress, (nine Republicans and 13 Democrats), the endorsement of nine national organizations, and support from 21 local police and fire officials and organizations, according a release from Ruiz’s office.
The bill most recently gained the endorsement of the California Peace Officers’ Association and the California Reserve Peace Officers Association.
“On this day, we remember the heroism of Officers Lesley Zerebny and Gil Vega, honor the tremendous sacrifice they and their families have made for our community, and reflect on the enormous risk taken every day by the men and women who keep us safe,” Ruiz said in a prepared statement. “The officers who put on their uniforms each day risk their lives to protect our community. They are there for us in our time of need and we must be there for them. We have a responsibility as a community to honor them by ensuring their families are supported in the event of a tragedy,” said Dr. Ruiz. “That is why our community came together and worked with the Vega and Zerebny families to introduce the Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gilbert Vega First Responders Survivors Support Act to ensure families are taken care of during a time of great loss. This bipartisan, pragmatic legislation will help cut through the red tape and get the families of our fallen heroes the support they need to ensure they have every opportunity to succeed in life. The bill continues to gain momentum with the support of key local, state, and national stakeholders, most recently the California Peace Officers Association, and together, we will continue to move this legislation forward.”
In a prepared statement, Gloria Vega, daughter of Officer Gil Vega, said, “I want to thank the Congressman for everything that he has done for me and my family these past two years. He has really been involved since the beginning and he didn’t have to be. To push this bill is one of the best things that he can do not only for our family, but all the families across the nation who have gone through what we have been through. As it is there are so many things we are going through and thinking about and having to worry about how certain bills are going to be paid should not be one of them. Especially to those families that were living off the one income and no longer have that coming in. Thank you so much Dr. Ruiz for all that you have done for our family, the Zerebny family and the community. It does not go unnoticed and is very much appreciated.”
Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) and Public Safety Officers’ Education Assistance (PSOEA) programs provide peace of mind for the men and women who serve our communities as law enforcement and other public safety officers.
“Because of these programs, they can perform their duties with the confidence that their families will be taken care of in the event they are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Canterbury said. “However, the benefits have not kept up with the times and many survivor families, especially those with children, have found themselves facing financial hardships in addition to the pain of losing their loved one. The legislation introduced by Representative Ruiz cannot alleviate the grief of such a devastating loss, but it can relieve any financial pressure the family may encounter.”
The families of public safety officers who experience the tragedy of a line of duty death or disability rely on the benefits promised to them by the PSOB Program to continue with their lives, said Bill Johnson, Executive Director, National Association of Police Organizations.
“Unfortunately, the current PSOB Program death, disability and education benefit amounts are not adequate to meet the financial needs of these families, which is why the Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gil Vega First Responder Survivors Support Act is so important,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “We thank Congressman Ruiz for his leadership and commitment to this important issue and hope to see the Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gil Vega First Responder Survivors Support Act enacted in the 116th Congress.”
“We strongly support the efforts by Congressman Ruiz to update to the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program, which will provide needed resources and support services of police officers and fire fighters killed in the line of duty.
The bill, introduced after the line of duty deaths of Palm Springs Police Officers Leslie Zerebny and Gilbert Vega, should be a priority for passage by the next Congress, said Bill Young, President of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association.
“Officer Zerebny was married to a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and the impact of her death and that of Officer Vega continues to be felt by law enforcement and the community throughout Riverside County. Passage of this bill is an important step in honoring their memories and helping their families to heal,” Young said.
Background on the Officers Legislation
The Heroes Lesley Zerebny and Gil Vega First Responders Survivors Support Act would update the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) Program so that grieving families of fallen heroes will have the support they need to pay off their debts, pursue their education, and get back on their feet.
1. The death benefit is simply not enough to help grieving families get on their feet – The bill increases the payment from $350,000 to $500,000. This would allow the average family to fully pay off the most common outstanding debts (mortgage, credit card, auto loans, and private student loans), and cover the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18.
2. Families lose out due to delays in approving the benefit – Too often, families must wait months if not years to get the benefits they are owed, but the amount paid to families is based on the date of death, not the date of disbursement. The bill changes the date to the date of disbursement.
3. The education benefit has not kept up with increases in college tuition – From 2006-2016 CPI for all items rose by 21.4 percent, whereas CPI for college tuition and fees rose by 62.7 percent. Family members are not getting enough to help cover the actual costs of a degree. The bill nearly doubles the stipend to $2,000 and indexes it to the CPI for tuition and fees.
4. The education benefit is underutilized – Many families are not fully aware of the education benefit or are unable take advantage of the program because of delays in processing their eligibility. The bill requires a study on how the benefit is utilized in order to increase the amount it is used. The bill requires the Government Accountability Office to determine PSOB and PSOEA utilization rates, identify barriers to accessing and using the education benefit, and report back to Congress on further improvements that can be made to better serve our officers and their families.
The PSOB 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 robust death benefit if they are killed in the line of duty.
Endorsing Organizations: National Sheriffs’ Association, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, National Association of Police Officers (NAPO), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA), Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), California Peace Officers’ Association, California Reserve Peace Officers’ Association, and the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC).
List of Cosponsors: Cook (R-CA), Comstock (R-VA), Bilirakis (R-FL), Brownley (D-CA), Bustos (D-IL), Carbajal (D-CA), Chu (D-CA), Demings (D-FL), Faso (R-NY), Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Garamendi (D-CA), Keating (D-MA), Kilmer (D-WA), King (R-NY), Lance (R-NJ), O’Halleran (D-AZ), Peters (D-CA), Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Tenney (R-NY), Vargas (D-CA), Vela (D-TX), Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL).
Click here to see the full language of the bill