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McAuliffe marks signing of revised Line of Duty Act; Va. awards public safety grants

June 10, 2016 | Virginia News

News Image By MICHAEL MARTZ | Richmond Times-Dispatch

A few feet from a state memorial to fallen police officers and firefighters, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday commemorated his signing of legislation that will transform the state law guaranteeing benefits to public safety employees killed or injured in the line of duty.

The overhaul of the Line of Duty Act won’t take effect until next summer, but McAuliffe and the lawmaker who sponsored it say the revisions will sustain the 44-year-old law and its benefits for first responders and their families, while saving state and local governments $40 million over 10 years.

“This ensures the long-term fiscal sustainability of the program,” the governor said at a ceremony rich in symbolism next to the Virginia Public Safety Memorial at Capitol Square.

Days after adding the names of eight fallen firefighters and police officers to the memorial wall, McAuliffe was joined by House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, the bill’s sponsor, who recalled carrying a man from a burning house as a 17-year-old volunteer firefighter in Chuckatuck only to learn later the man had died.

Jones, who also volunteered as a firefighter in Ashland as a student at Randolph-Macon College, remembered waiting at a hospital four years ago to learn whether his nephew, police officer James Winslow, would survive a severe beating by a man he had pursued for suspected car theft. Winslow survived after emergency brain surgery.

“Most important, (the law) is going to provide benefits over time to men and women, and their families, who serve us every day,” he said.

The effort to revise the law, involving representatives of police, fire, rescue and other affected organizations, grew from a 2014 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission that sounded an alarm over the escalating costs of the program and its benefits for the state and local governments. The study warned that the annual costs of the program would double in 10 years without changes.

Under House Bill 1345, administration of the program will shift to the Virginia Retirement System from the state treasury department, while the Department of Human Resource Management will administer a unified health benefit program for disabled first responders, their spouses, and dependent children through age 26.

When the program began in 1972, it provided only a lump-sum death benefit for the families of those killed in the line of duty, but the General Assembly added health benefits for disabled first responders and their families in 1998. The sponsor of that legislation, former Del. C. Richard Cranwell, D-Vinton, attended the signing ceremony Thursday, as did Alison Hudgins, the widow of a Chesapeake firefighter killed in the line of duty two years before the law changed.

In addition to police and fire and rescue employees, the Line of Duty Act has expanded to cover members of the Virginia National Guard, correctional officers, ABC special agents, game and forest wardens, and other law officers.

The new law will change health benefits for public safety employees who qualify on or after July 1, 2017, generally requiring them to shift to Medicare after they turn 65. It also would require periodic review of a person’s disability status and end benefits for surviving spouses of those killed in the line of duty after they remarry, as well as for spouses of disabled beneficiaries after divorce.

Public safety grants
Earlier Thursday, the McAuliffe administration announced it is giving $74 million in federal and state funds through 321 grants to programs across the state for helping victims and witnesses of crimes, as well as protecting victims of sexual and domestic violence, court-appointed advocates for children, and other public safety initiatives.

“Many of these grants provide essential services that are not otherwise available,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran at a news conference at the General Assembly Building.

In the Richmond area, the grants by Department of Criminal Justice Services will go to local Victim Witness programs, community corrections initiatives, and Court Appointed Special Advocates for children. In the city, the grants also will help programs for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, delinquency prevention, and services for offenders to transition back to society.

Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael R. Doucette, chairman of the state criminal justice services board, said the grants will allow his office to help victims of domestic violence get final protective orders, which many with preliminary orders do not because of the complexity of the judicial system.

“We are going to be able to have more contact with victims,” Doucette said.

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