Friday November 30, 2012

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Long-stalled legislation championed by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and inspired by the death of a local first responder has been attached to a defense spending bill and is now expected to pass.

Leahy has been seeking passage of the "Dale Long Act" since 2009, when the late Bennington emergency medical technician died in an ambulance crash. The legislation would extend benefits to the families of first responders who are employed by nonprofit agencies like the Bennington Rescue Squad, for whom Long worked. The legislation is retroactive to 2009, so Long’s family would receive benefits.

For three years, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn had stymied all of Leahy’s attempts to pass the bill by placing holds on it or taking other measures. Leahy successfully attached the bill as an amendment to a defense spending bill Wednesday night and Coburn was unable to block it. The motion passed on an 85 to 11 vote in this short lame duck session before the new Congress is seated in January.

"They were trying like mad to say, ‘Well, we can’t handle the Dale Long bill now,’" Leahy said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I just stood on the floor for four hours and got both (Sens.) Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to support bringing up my amendment."

Leahy has tried several times to pass the legislation on its own, and to attach it to other larger bills. But Leahy’s efforts were rebuffed each time. He first introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009. The bill would qualify an estimated 1200 EMS personnel in Vermont alone for the Public Safety Officer Benefit’s program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Leahy offered the Dale Long bill as an amendment to the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act earlier this year, but that effort failed. The defense spending bill it was attached to Wednesday is considered must-pass legislation before the end of the year. The House already approved counterpart legislation in June.

"I knew if I could bring it to a vote I’d win. Finally, about 6 o’clock last night, we were able to bring it up and get a vote on it," Leahy said. "I was talking to Dale’s brother this morning and told him after all these times of bringing it up we were finally able to get it. I knew Dale Long and this is long overdue."

The PSOB program began in 1976 and provides benefits for certain public safety officers who die or are disabled as a result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty. But the existing law excludes nongovernmental safety officers and trainees. Leahy’s bill looks to close that gap in coverage. It includes language to extend the federal program to paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work or volunteer for nonprofit ambulance services and their families when they are disabled or killed in the line of duty.

"For those of us who live in rural areas we know that the EMS personnel are predominantly volunteer and we ought to be protecting them," Leahy said.

Coburn has called for eliminating the PSOB program, citing "serious federalism concerns" because it provides federal benefits to state and local employees. Coburn said Congress should end the program because it is "not the responsibility of the federal government."

Leahy said some towns and states cannot afford such benefits, however. In certain cases the federal government must help spread the cost and benefits.

"He’s stated over and over again that these are things that should be entirely up to the states. The same reason he’s arguing against bulletproof vests. But, there’s some things that states can’t do," Leahy said. "A state like Vermont certainly couldn’t do that on their own. There’s also a lot of small towns that couldn’t do it."

"There’s a reason we’re the United States of America. It’s really not a cliché when you say the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts. This is just one of those areas," he added.

Leahy said the legislation is not a special earmark, and will benefit EMS personnel across the country, not just Vermont.

The legislation could still be stripped from the defense authorization bill, Leahy said he has met with McCain and Levin and both have committed to maintaining the amendment in the bill. "It’s always a chance but I’ve been working with the House Republicans and Democrats. I think it will stay in," Leahy said.

William Hathaway, executive director of Bennington Rescue, hailed the bill’s progress.

"This is really great news, provided it actually makes it into law. There’s so many EMS providers that are not covered and have suffered line-of-duty deaths. If this passes they will be equal to their governmental counterparts," he said. "If one of my EMTs gets killed or hurt seriously, and the firefighter standing next them also gets hit, the firefighter next to him or her is covered, even though they’re doing the same job."

Hathaway said Leahy has always been optimistic that benefits would be extended to organizations like Bennington Rescue. "Every time I’ve talked to Sen. Leahy he’s said, ‘Bill, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,’" Hathaway said.

The legislation also includes a provision to that a cadet officer killed during a training exercise will be eligible for benefits under the PSOB program and provisions to ease the appeals process for claimants.

A Leahy aide said Thursday that the Senate is looking to complete work on the defense authorization bill the end of the week or early next week.