Volunteer firefighters burned by Obamacare, IRS

Volunteer firefighters burned by Obamacare, IRS

Firefighters Putting Out a FireThey are used to putting out blazes themselves, but now the nation’s volunteer firefighters are counting on Congress to throw cold water on IRS rules placing them under Obamacare mandates that could bankrupt their operations.

Bipartisan legislation would waive the requirement that volunteer departments provide the kind of comprehensive health coverage that full-time paid firefighters receive.

Though the U.S. Department of Labor has long held that volunteer fire crews are, in fact, volunteers, the IRS puts them under the Obamacare umbrella as employees. Except for larger urban areas, most U.S. communities are served by fire and rescue squads staffed by part-time volunteers. Of the country’s 1.1 million professional firefighters, 753,000 are volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Virginia, for example, has 28,000 volunteer firefighters — far outnumbering their career counterparts. In Pennsylvania, 97% of jurisdictions rely mostly or entirely on volunteer crews.

Of the IRS interpretation, William Metcalf, president and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, remarked:

This is a bipartisan issue that could have serious impacts on staffing at fire departments across the United States.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed with Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania last week to introduce House and Senate bills exempting volunteer first responders from the Obamacare mandates.

The House measure – HR 3685 – has 75 co-sponsors so far, mainly Republicans.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with more than 50 full-time employees must provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week. The IRS moved volunteer firefighters into this group.

Said Barletta:

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.

Jeff Flippo, first vice president of the Virginia State Firefighters Association, said his group is optimistic that Congress will act after the Christmas break. If not, Flippo said firefighters will appeal to the Virginia General Assembly “to come up with something that the federal people would recognize.”

Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, noted that the federal regulations haven’t been finalized, and the employer mandate has been delayed until 2015:

A lot of political pressure is being applied on this. [Congress] may not even have to pass a bill.

“I think we’re going to get a lot of support,” Flippo added.

As for the slippery slope of what constitutes a “volunteer,” Osawatomie, Kan., City Manager Dan Cawby mused, “Where does it stop?”

Ironically, the Obama administration has issued more than 540,000 Obamacare waivers to union workers. Most career firefighters are represented by public-sector unions.

Cross-posted at Watchdog.org

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”


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