Obamacare Targets Volunteer Fire Departments

Sunday, 15 Dec 2013 06:40 PM

By Audrey Hudson

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Emergency response departments will be forced by Obamacare to provide volunteer workers – including volunteer firefighters -- with health insurance, putting a severe strain on their limited resources.

Several national firefighting organizations have pleaded with the Internal Revenue Service to rewrite the rules to allow them to exclude volunteers, the backbone of thousands of fire departments across the nation.

The Obama administration has ignored their pleas. But now some members of Congress are hoping to get the White House's attention with legislation aimed at excluding those first responders.

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"The people who volunteer, they don't do it because they want health insurance benefits, they are doing it to serve others in their worst time of need," said Robert Timko, incoming president of the Fairview Township Fire Department in New Cumberland, Pa.

"Our people don't do it for benefits, I can tell you that," Timko told Newsmax. "These people are schoolteachers, they're doctors, they're machinists."

The Obamacare rules issued by the IRS say that an entity with 50 employees who work more than 30 hours a week is required to buy health insurance for those personnel or pay a penalty.

The IRS says on its website, "Generally, tax laws apply to firefighters in the same manner as for other types of workers. It does not matter whether firefighters are termed 'volunteers,' are considered employees, or are identified by any other name. If the work they do is subject to the will and control of the payer, under the common-law rules, they are employees for federal tax purposes."

The National Volunteer Fire Council is one organization urging the government not to treat volunteers like employees and to exempt their members from the regulation, the Shared Responsibility Provision.

There are 783,000 volunteer firefighters who would be affected by the regulation, as well as 300,000 volunteer emergency medical technicians, David Finger, Director of Government Relations for the council, told Newsmax.

Asked if the Obamacare regulation has sparked alarm among its members that the rule could threaten public safety, Finger said, "This is a huge concern for us."

The Fairview Township Fire Department relies on the city plus a dedicated tax to fund the fire hall and equipment, and an additional $75,000 is raised by its volunteers every year for operational costs.

Timko estimates it would cost his agency approximately $600,000 a year to pay for insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act.

"It would blow our budget right out of the water," Timko said. "We would probably have to take the penalty."

While Timko's department operates on a six-figure budget, many volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania have only $30,000 to $40,000 a year to do their jobs.

According to the 2012 National Fire Department Census, 97 percent of Pennsylvania firefighters are volunteers, and dozens of other states rely heavily on volunteers. In Delaware, 98 percent of its manpower comes from volunteers, while 97 percent of firefighters in Minnesota and North Dakota are volunteers.

New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, a member of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, has petitioned the IRS to issue guidance that would save volunteer fire departments from having to shut down.

In a Dec. 6 letter to IRS Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel, LoBiondo said volunteer agencies would either have to disband or convert to paid departments in order to shift costs to municipal governments and local taxpayers. The New Jersey firefighting force is made up of 89 percent volunteers.

"I think you would agree that this outcome would be detrimental to those municipalities that rely on these heroes day in and day out to provide services their local governments are unable to afford as full-time paid positions," LoBiondo said.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Lou Barletta introduced a bill Tuesday to exempt volunteer fire departments from having to purchase Obamacare health benefits.

"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 in a letter to Werfel.

"Furthermore, subjecting volunteer fire companies to the Shared Responsibility Provision may force them to eliminate volunteers in order to avoid classification as a large employer," Barletta said.

The Volunteer Fire Council does not expect the rules to have an impact on volunteer departments until 2015, when dollars raised to save lives and protect property would instead be paid in fines to the government for not purchasing the health plans.

"We're actually urging people not to take any measures right now to try to comply, because we don't know how we would comply until the regulations are final," Finger said.

"Don't worry, you're not going to have the IRS banging down your door next week about this," Finger added. "But be aware of this and contact your members of Congress. Just don't start eliminating volunteer positions to get under 50 volunteers."

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