Volunteer firefighters battle IRS, Obamacare

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, December 19, 2013

Volunteer firefighters nationwide 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.

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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.

“This is a bipartisan issue that could have serious impacts on staffing at fire departments across the United States,” William Metcalf, president and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said of the IRS interpretation.

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.

“Make no mistake,” Barletta said. “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.”

In Suffolk, city spokesman Tim Kelley said the city is not concerned.

“There are no official mandates passed yet requiring volunteers to be offered health insurance and the employer mandate has been delayed for a year, therefore, there is no action required from the City of Suffolk as it relates to providing health insurance to volunteers at this time,” he wrote in an email.

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,” Webb told Watchdog.

“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.

Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at 571-319-9824.