Health law leaves volunteer firefighting in limbo

If volunteers are counted as employees, fire departments would be forced to provide insurance
Associated Press
Jan 5, 2014

Fire chiefs and lawmakers are working to protect the system of volunteer firefighting that has served rural America for more than a century but is threatened by an ambiguity in President Barack Obama's health care law.

Small and rural fire departments from California to Maine, which has one of the country's highest percentages of volunteer and on-call firefighters, rely on volunteers to avoid the budget-strapping cost of paying them to be on duty in between fighting fires.

The volunteers are considered employees for tax purposes, a classification that grew out of an ongoing effort to attract firefighters by offering them such incentives as stipends, retirement benefits and free gym memberships.

That leaves open the question of whether the volunteer firefighters fall under the health care law's requirement that employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week must provide health insurance for them. Fire departments say they can't afford to pay such a cost.

"Most of these are operating on a shoestring budget — holding pancake dinners to raise money to put enough gas in the truck so they can respond to the next fire, the next medical call," said Dave Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Faced with the cost of insurance, or being fined if they fail to provide it, departments would likely be forced to reduce the number of hours firefighters can volunteer or eliminate the benefit programs, officials said.

That has both fire chiefs and lawmakers raising concerns.

Darrel Fournier, fire chief in Freeport, a town of about 8,000 people near the coast in southern Maine that's home to L.L. Bean, said his department is bracing for what could be significant costs under the health care law. He expects he'll have to provide coverage for the five firefighters he employs part time. That would cost the city — and ultimately taxpayers — about $75,000, or a penalty of $150,000.

Additionally, in a busy winter with lots of fires, emergency calls and accidents, he said his roughly 50 volunteers could work more than 30 hours a week, meeting the threshold under the law that would require him to provide health insurance for them as well.

To avoid the penalty, Freeport could cut back on the number of hours part-time and volunteer firefighters have to work. But that would mean finding more volunteers to make up the difference, something the department and others across the country already struggle to do, Fournier said. When he started in Freeport in 1972, there was a waiting list of 25 people. After three months actively recruiting in the community, Fournier said he's lucky that he'll soon be interviewing nine potential volunteer firefighters.

"It's pretty amazing how this law is touching different operations," he said in an interview in Freeport's brick firehouse, where yellow fire trucks and ambulances were lined up awaiting the next call. "I'm not sure everyone thought that through."

The question is expected to be answered when the Internal Revenue Service releases final regulations this year before the provision takes effect in 2015. A Treasury spokeswoman said the department is taking the concerns into account as it works toward the final regulations but wouldn't comment on what they're likely to include.

In the meantime, Maine's U.S. senators are backing a recently introduced bill aimed at ensuring volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders are exempt from the health care law requirement. Republicans point to the confusion as another example of the problems with the law, which has been plagued by a fumbled rollout and criticism over canceled health care plans.

"This is yet another adverse and unanticipated impact of Obamacare," said Maine Republican Susan Collins.

City and town leaders are also discussing ways to keep their staff under 50 employees to dodge the costs, Maine Municipal Association officials said. School superintendents are making sure their substitute teachers aren't working more than 30 hours a week to avoid having to cover them, Collins said.

Others point to factors that they say show the concern is overblown. Many small towns only have about 20 to 30 volunteer firefighters, likely making them too small to be affected by the law's mandate. And though Fournier described a busy winter with a lot of work for firefighters, they often fall short of working enough hours to be affected by the insurance requirement. Most volunteers also receive insurance coverage through their primary work as teachers, business professionals or city employees.

It's too early to ring the alarm, concluded Trish Riley, an adjunct professor of health policy at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

"With any major piece of legislation like this, there are bound to be unintended consequences," she said. "But you can't leap to conclusions before the federal government has the opportunity to address it."

Finger said he's confident the issue will ultimately be addressed either through the regulations or legislation and is urging fire departments to avoid taking any immediate steps. But he realizes that the political tension over the health care law means that even a small change can turn into a big fight.

"The tough part is, anything having to do with this law is just so partisan that it's difficult to take action on," he said.




If the house has a car with a Obama bumper sticker or a "Relect Obama" In the yard just let it burn. It will teach those who want this thing that people are sick of "unintended consequences" and there's real consequences for bad choices.

The Big Dog's back

Glad you showed everyone your true right wingnut colors. No doubt now.


Just another "unintended consequence" of liberal policy. Isn't that the excuse the left is using now?

Darwin's choice

Obamacare in action....


Here go our taxes again!

The Big Dog's back

So if these volunteers get hurt saving your life who should pay?


Well Brutus, if one gets hurt on the job, there's a little thing called Workers Compensation Insurance.

Maybe you've heard of it. Then again, grease spatters at the big griddle usually don't require medical treatment.

The Big Dog's back

What part of VOLUNTEER don't you comprehend?


Re-read this part. S L O W L Y so maybe you can comprehend it:

"The volunteers are considered employees for tax purposes"

Employees are covered how for OTJ injuries?

The Big Dog's back

Oh, and that socialistic Workman's Comp?


It is the current gov't policy. Do you follow current gov't policies or do you pay the fines or reside in prison? Those are the choices piddle puppy.


Volunteer firefighters risk their lives. Providing them with healthcare doesn't seem like overcompensation to me, and I am 100% ok with my tax dollars being used for that.

But then, I'm a Democrat, and understand that if we want to maintain a civilized society that provides the basic services we have all come to depend upon, we have to pay for that. Shame on me!


coasterfan Re: Volunteer firefighters risk their lives. Providing them with healthcare doesn't seem like overcompensation to me, and I am 100% ok with my tax dollars being used for that.

I do not think that being a volunteer firefighter would be considered a job that would support a family. My grandson works at a Ford plant and is a volunteer firefighter. If there are no fires to fight he gets no pay however if he is called to fight a fire he does receive a modest pay however he does the job because he likes it and feels a sense of responsibility to his community the small amount of pay he receives is not really considered as a reason to do the job.

As he as well as the other men in his volunteer group do have full time jobs including health care why should we pay taxes to give him additional insurance.

Darwin's choice

I wonder how many of these "volunteers" supported "President Barack Obama's health care law", and/or voted the failure into office?

Can't unring the bell there fellows!


Obamacare was first proposed by Republicans and championed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Like many other things, as soon as Obama supported it, they did a 180...

Darwin's choice

And, still full of chit.....

at least you're consistant, troll.


The idea or outline done by Heritage was less than 20 pages, Obamascare was over 2300 pages. They sure added a lot of crap before passing that bill with no repube votes. They had a supermajority in the Senate, a large majority in the house. Why didn't they use their own ideas? Were they, are they, that mentally bankrupt they had none of their own? They didn't need nor get any repube support or votes and recieved none. Why didn't they use their own ideas? Beyond their limited ability to come up with their own plan? After all it was obama's signature policy. are they that lacking in ability to come up with their own ideas?

Bet I don't get an answer.


Perkins, Huron, Margaratte have part time firefghters, they have the same trouble, these Firefighters work 24 hour shifts, they can only work 36 hours a week.

There you go again

I think there will be"a few more" unintended consequences with the ObamaNOcare health plan. This is what happens when things (ie, ACA) are hurried through with no regard to the consequences. Hell, how could you know what was in it if nobody takes the time to read the darn thing.

The Big Dog's back

So 40 years of kicking the can down the road is rushing it? Who knew?

There you go again

You mean Obama has been working on this for 40 years and this is all he
could come up with?!?!
You know it's a mess....come on..admit it, Mr. Dog!!!

The Big Dog's back

A mess? Having 47 million more people getting healthcare is a mess? No, the Iraq war was a mess.

Darwin's choice

Stupid dog, those 47 million are welfare recipients thanks to obamafail.

And, Afghanistan is the mess....




Doggy, If the point of the law was to cover an additional 47 million people, the why did MY health care have to change? Why did my deductible go from $0 to $6000?


The only "more" involves the number of people enrolled in Medicaid (effectively another government welfare program). The "less?" Well, those are the numbers of the uninsured PLUS all of those who've now LOST their insurance, thanks to Obamacare! You're right, though, that that's not a mess. "Mess" has nowhere near enough syllables to adequately convey the truth!

Meanwhile, Iraq actually IS a mess. Thanks to Obumbles and his "foreign policy" (in quotes because it isn't really much of one), Fallujah has fallen to al Qaeda, and more gains are likely to be lost shortly. What's your excuse to cover Obumbles for THAT one, eh?

The Big Dog's back

Iraq needs a strong leader. Someone who kept Al Qaeda out and brought order to the country. Someone like, like Saddam Hussein. Oh, wait.

Darwin's choice

Well, we all knew you are a piece of crap, and backing the idiot with the name hussein proves it, azzhat.

You keep polishing that turd though.....


The turd has been well polished already given Big Dog's blind backing of yet ANOTHER despot bearing the name "Hussein..."


Along with many INtended consequences, such as health plans not being able to refuse applicants due to pre-existing conditions. Such as you and I not having to pay 100% of the health costs of the 30 million uninsured through higher insurance premiums (you didn't think hospitals treat the uninsured for free, did you?). Young adults can stay on their parents' policies longer.

Here's the BIG irony: Republicans gripe when a small minority lose benefits, but are advocating a repeal of Obamacare which would instantly deny health insurance to the 3 million who have already signed up.

Re: "taking time to read the darn thing", things were no different with Obamacare than with any other bill presented to Congress. Rarely, if ever, are entire bills read by congressmen. That doesn't mean they don't know what they're voting on. And even if true, wouldn't that put the blame on GOP congressmen for voting for something that THEY didn't read?