By David Martosko, U.S. Political Editor, Daily Mail, December 9, 2013
Volunteer fire departments all across the U.S. could find themselves out of money and unable to operate unless Congress or the Obama Administration exempts them from the Affordable Care Act.
Volunteer fire departments were not exempted from Obamacare.Credit: Lee Cannon via Flickr
‘I thought the kinks were worked out of Obamacare at the first of the month,’ Central Florida volunteer firefighter Carl Fabrizi told Sunshine State News.
‘Man, oh, man, this could potentially destroy some real good companies in Florida.’
The U.S. Department of Labor takes the term ‘volunteer’ literally, but the IRS says volunteer firefighters are technically employees if they’re on the job more than 30 hours per week, making them subject to Obamacare’s employee-mandate rules.
Since the Obamacare law doesn’t specifically carve out an exemption for them, fire departments where 50 or more people work – either as volunteers or officially as employees – are expected to provide health insurance for every one of them.
In towns with more than one volunteer fire department, all the staffers will likely be lumped together for tax purposes, pushing many municipalities above the 50-worker threshold.
That could cost departments of life-savers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Those that dump their volunteers into the federal insurance exchanges would still have to pay an annual $2,000 fine for each ’employee’ after the first 30.
‘I can tell you right now we can’t afford it,’ East Derry, Pennsylvania Fire Company Chief Edward Mann told the Patriot-News. ‘While a volunteer fire department may not have a payroll, the rest of it isn’t free. The only part that is free is the labor.’
Mann’s concerns are likely to get at least some attention in Washington: He’s also the state fire commissioner in Pennsylvania, where 97 per cent of fire departments are fully or mostly staffed by volunteers. That’s the highest percentage in the U.S.
Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that volunteer fire departments make up 71 per cent of America’s 1 million firehouses. Another 16 per cent are ‘mostly volunteer.’
It’s unclear how many of those departments involve at least 50 people, making the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act’s latest unintended consequence difficult to calculate.
But the International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service to let all volunteer departments off the hook. The federal government has taken no action so far.
‘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 organization said in a statement.
A U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson said in a statement that the agency has ‘received a number of comments concerning volunteer firefighters and other volunteers in response to proposed regulations issued last December.’
‘We are taking those comments into account as we work toward issuing final regulations on the employer-responsibility provision’ of the Affordable Care Act, the spokesperson said.
But Bill White, a volunteer firefighter for 50 years and leader of the Dive Rescue Specialists in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, said an IRS rule that officially makes volunteers subject to Obamacare employer mandates would be a disaster.
‘We’re barely paying the bills that we have now,’ he told the Scranton Times-Tribune
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Lou Barletta fired off a letter to the IRS last week.
‘Obamacare has raised more questions than it has answered,’ Barletta said in a statement.
‘First, are volunteer firefighters considered employees and therefore subject to the employer mandate under Obamacare? And second, how should volunteer time be counted to see if they’re working 30 hours?’
‘Does it mean when a volunteer is wearing a beeper or carrying a fire department cell phone? Does it include downtime at the station house? Listening to a scanner?’
‘If Obamacare is the law of the land, then so is the law of unintended consequences,’ he said, ‘and there seems to be a lot of that going around these days. Just like the flu.’
New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins had his own evaluation of the rule for the IRS, writing in a letter to Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel that it will produce ‘a public safety disaster.’