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Obamacare under fire for its unintended effect on volunteer firefighters

December 5, 2013 2:27 pm by | 11 Comments

firefighters

SCRANTON-- A local congressman wants answers on whether volunteer firefighting companies could be unintentionally swept into the national health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service, which has partial oversight of the law, to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means their hose companies or towns must offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don't.

The organization representing the fire chiefs has been working on the issue with the IRS and White House for months.

"It could be a huge deal," said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, who is seeking clarification from the IRS. "In Pennsylvania, 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly volunteer firefighters. It's the fourth highest amount in the country."

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So far, the IRS hasn't decided what to do.

Efforts to reach spokesmen for the IRS were unsuccessful.

Under the fire chiefs' organization's interpretation, the concern goes like this:

The health care reform law, known officially as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and derisively by Republicans as Obamacare, requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance. Companies with fewer than 50 employees do not have to offer insurance. Full-time employees are defined as an employee who works 30 or more hours a week.

Such employers who don't offer health insurance must pay fines.

The requirement is complicated by differing interpretations about the status of volunteer firefighters within the federal government. The Department of Labor, according to the fire chiefs group, classifies most volunteers as non-employees, but the IRS considers all volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of their departments.

"If the IRS classifies volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel as employees in their final rule, fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely," the chiefs' group says on its website.

Mr. Barletta said the problem could be even more complicated if the IRS counts volunteer hose companies as one department in towns with more than one hose company or as part of a town's workforce. Definitions like that could bump the total numbers beyond the 50-employee threshold and require offering coverage that towns or hose companies cannot afford, he said. The IRS must also define what sort of volunteer duty counts toward the 30-hour-a-week limit.

Mr. Barletta wrote a letter urging the IRS to write a rule that labels volunteer firefighters as non-employees.

"There needs to be clarification because this could be serious," he said. "That's all we're looking at and that we haven't heard anything concerns me."

Bruce Moeller, chairman of a task force for the fire chiefs group and head of safety and emergency services for Pinellas County, Fla., said the problem arose because the IRS already considers volunteers as employees and requires all departments to issue W-2 forms for any sort of compensation for volunteers. He's sure Congress did not intend to require volunteer fire departments to offer health insurance when it passed the health law.

"Welcome to federal regulations," he said. "It's one of those quirks."

Local officials in volunteer departments said they had not heard of the issue or not heard much about it.

One local fire chief said it never occurred to him that volunteers could be considered employees.

Bill White, a volunteer firefighter for 50 years and leader of the Dive Rescue Specialists in Scott Twp., said an IRS rule requiring offering volunteers health insurance would create an uproar.

"If they push that, that would be just the final nail in the coffin for Obamacare for everybody," he said. "I'm not terribly concerned about it."

He's not concerned because the harm would be too great.

"We're barely paying the bills that we have now," Mr. White said.

John Cudo, a volunteer firefighter and public works department laborer in Taylor and an official with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Volunteer Fireman's Federation, said the possibility caught him by surprise when he heard about it during a firefighters' convention in September. A requirement like that could hurt, but he was unconcerned it will happen.

"We're not employees," he said.

Contact the writer: [email protected] ___

Copyright 2014 MedCity News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

By Borys Krawczeniuk

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11 comments
TigerOnly
TigerOnly

To the writer: You should read the bill before writing. president feces, healthcare bill is written to Deceive. Obamacare quoted, an IRS law that existed before Obamacare. If you read it you would know you don't have to sign up. Answer this: How is the Obamacare tax penalty going to be collected, if both criminal prosecutions and liens and levies cannot be used to go get it? 

ChristianeParsons
ChristianeParsons

Most volunteer fire departments don't do more than 30 hours a week. So this is really a non issue. The issue is the IRS saying that volunteers are employees. They are only considered employees from the time the pager goes off or the call goes out until they leave the station at the end of the call. That still for most departments does not add up to 30 hours a week.

NotJelloBiafra
NotJelloBiafra

Funny how you type in a search Obamacare firefighters and not one main stream media source comes up. Why?

JimZeigler
JimZeigler

Would Obamacare apply to volunteer firefighters who are not regularly scheduled to work more than 30 hours a week?

afscme later
afscme later

What I find most humorous is that 97% of Pennsylvania's fire fighters pay income tax but are not considered employees.

bluffchief
bluffchief

Our county is our overseer, with about 6 15-person departments. We don't get any pay and may not be considered employees for IRS, but we are considered unpaid employees under the county workers compensation policy. Sounds like a possible can of worms.

etstretch
etstretch

it says employer with more than 50. the employer according to the irs is the town. that's why this needs clarifying. the dept is not the employer unless its a private company. if you're a municipal department the town is the employer. so add the dpw, the cops, town hall workers, maintenance workers, water, sewer, etc. not hard to get to 50.  

JimZeigler
JimZeigler

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) Obamacare applies to an employer with 50 or more full time or full time equivalent employees. This means that the employer has more than 50 employees REGULARLY scheduled to work in total more than 1500 hours a week.  So how many volunteer fire departments have more than 50 member total.  Of those how many have 1500 hours of REGULARLY scheduled activities assigned to the members? I'd question the motivation of Rep. Barletta for creating this issue - could it be another politicians trying to chip away at Obamacare for his own personal benefit, such as more donations for next year's election campaign

mikegramig
mikegramig

My reading of the requirements of employer to provide health insurance would indicate that if the department either had less than 50 members or if their members were considered as working part time (less than 30 hours per week) they would not be subject to the requirement.

mikegramig
mikegramig

The department wouldn't have to provide health insurance if the volunteers are considered working under 30 hours per week and/or the department had more than 50 "employees it seems to me.

ksandifer09
ksandifer09

The problem would be for example, if a small town already has 20 full time employees, and they also have 15 Volunteer Firefighters, this would put their total employee count over the 30. Most fire departments are run by their local municipalities, which I understand would add to the total employees that municipality already has. This would be a sad situation.

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