Protecting Volunteer Firefighters from Obamacare

Rep. Lou Barletta introduces bill exempting volunteer fire departments from Obamacare regulation
Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Penn.) / AP

Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Penn.) / AP


Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) introduced a bill Tuesday that will exempt volunteer fire departments from having to pay for their members’ insurance benefits.

The current IRS policy defines volunteer firefighters as employees for federal tax purposes. If voted into law, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act will redefine volunteers as non-employees, which will relieve fire departments from the burden of paying for volunteers’ health insurance.

“Without further guidance from the IRS—which could have issued a clarification immediately if it so chose—we have no choice but to pursue a legislative fix to yet another problem with Obamacare,” Barletta said in a statement.

“Make no mistake, this wrinkle we discovered in Obamacare would not provide health insurance to the uninsured, rather it will close down fire companies and do real damage to public safety.”

The “Employer’s Shared Responsibility Provision” of the ACA requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance for those who work more than 30 hours a week. Many volunteer firefighters, such as those in Burlington, Wash., work more than 30 hours a week

Both the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council support the bill.

Unlike career firefighters, many volunteers already have separate full time jobs that cover their insurance.

“When volunteers join the fire department they don’t anticipate to receive health insurance,” said David Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council. “They join to volunteer.”

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) began investigating possible effects of Obamacare on volunteers after receiving numerous inquiries from fire departments.

The NVFC started an online letter writing campaign in September encouraging the fire and rescue community to write to legislators and the IRS “for clarification that volunteers are not employees of the agencies they serve for the purposes of enforcing the employer shared responsibility provision.”

Finger said that about 500 people have sent the form letter so far. The IRS has yet to give Finger a reply other than “we’re looking into it.”

Finger says that he believes this issue can be fixed.

“This is an unanticipated consequence of the bill, but we really do think it could be resolved,” he said.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has also studied the potential consequences of Obamacare for several months and sent a letter to IRS Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel in September seeking specific answers on how the agency would implement the ACA.

Both the IAFC and NVFC are advising against immediate action from departments, such as budget cuts, since the law will not be implemented until 2015. However they are still asking members to reach out to legislators to prevent volunteers from becoming victims of Obamacare’s side effects.

Chief David Nielson of Burlington Fire Department in Washington state is one of the many fire chiefs who have signed onto the IAFC campaign.

“We’re hoping there will be a national effort for an exemption [to the Affordable Care Act] for volunteer firefighters,” Nielson told the Free Beacon.

Burlington Fire Department currently has 30 volunteers who serve alongside six career firefighters in the city’s fire stations. The fire department responds to 1,600 emergency calls per year. It is also responsible for the city’s 16,000 permanent residents and the 50,000 daily visitors that come through the town for outlet shopping.

Since the department receives most of its funding from property taxes, it relies heavily on volunteer help to remain within its $1.6 million annual budget.

The city’s administrator said that it could cost up to $750,000 a year to provide health care to volunteers who worked more than 30 hours a week, according to a local news station.

“Volunteers are very important for us to operate efficiently,”  Nielson said.  “We can’t pay for many more full time career firefighters.”

Barletta wrote a letter to Werfel on Dec. 3 asking him to clarify the agency’s policy on volunteer firefighters. Ninety-seven percent of fire departments in his home state of Pennsylvania are volunteer, which is one of the highest percentages in the country.

“Forcing volunteer fire companies to comply with the Shared Responsibility Provision will not extend health insurance to the uninsured—rather it will close firehouses and place communities at risk,” Barletta wrote to Werfel.

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