Insuring volunteer firefighters may lead to staff cuts

WASHINGTON, D.C. – They put themselves in harm’s way to save their neighbors. Many of them do it on their own time, free of charge. But right now, volunteer fire companies across the country are trying to figure out if they will have to provide medical insurance to their workers under the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate.

“For us to have to put out money to support the insurance program for all our volunteers would be a harmful thing for our financial budget,” said Lucien Lawson, president of the West Ridge Fire Department, which is located outside of Erie, PA.

Lawson says money is already tight, and having to insure his volunteers could lead to cutting staff. 90% of fire departments in the United States consist of volunteer staff.

“We would rather not do that just to avoid the insurance program, but if it came to that we probably would and that would obviously hurt our responses to the calls,” Lawson said.

Here is why Lawson and some lawmakers are concerned. Right now, the Internal Revenue Service considers volunteer firefighters and first responders as employees for federal tax purposes.

If the IRS maintains that classification under the Affordable Care Act, many departments would be required to provide health insurance. But lawmakers here on Capitol Hill are trying to be proactive to avoid that situation.

“The risk of this is just too great to leave it to chance as to whether the IRS would make an interpretation or not,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA).

Thompson was a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years. He is co-sponsoring the “Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act” which would exempt volunteer departments across the country from providing health insurance.

“These are volunteers serving their neighbors,” Thompson said. “These are not employees. We need to respect them, we need to support them, we cannot make their lives more difficult.”

The House bill has bipartisan support, and there’s an identical bill in the Senate.

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