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.




You care about 3 million (Thats speculative) who have signed up but could care less about the 5 million who have lost theirs already? Spoiler: 5 million is a greater number than 3 million. Who is the minority again?

Darwin's choice

Coasterfan, You're in serious need of an enema, you're foggy....

No way 3 million have signed up for obamacrae, 24 hrs. ago it was 2, 24 hrs. before that it was 700,000.....

Keep cheerleading, you're proving the fool that you are!

The Big Dog's back

durwood, stop drinking out of rush's commode.


Oh, NOES! Still MORE "unintended consequences" of Obamacare? I frankly doubt it. Nobody writes a thousands-of-pages-long bill overnight. Obamacare was in the works and on the Progressive wish list for quite awhile, and when they perceived the iron was hot, they struck.

These failures are largely intentional. As Obamacare crashes and burns (or rather continues to do so), there will come a time in the very near future where the Progressive element will pretend to be sad and say, "Well, we TRIED a free market system, and it didn't work, so let's nationalize healthcare." And that, boys and girls, has been the Dem dream (and everybody else's nightmare) all along.

Darwin's choice



Almost as amusing as the GOP dream that Obamacare would fail. At the end of December, 3 million+ were signed up, compared to original projections of 4 million signed up by Dec. 31st. Encouragingly, sign ups grew exponentially in December, after the website revamp.

It's working, if with a few minor hiccups, and conservatives are doing anything they can to pretend it isn't. My son is still on our policy with full coverage, during his first year post-college, saving him thousands of $$ he doesn't have. My cousin Terry now pays $348 less per month for his health care than he used to before Obamacare. To be sure, it IS working in states that WANT it to work (California, Kentucky, New York).

The only real nightmare would be if the GOP returned to the White House. Their economic ideas continue to be proven wrong time after time after time (read Paul Krugman's synopsis in today's Toledo Blade), yet they continue to preach the same old story. Krugman is a Nobel-prize winning economist, and says it far better than I could.


Paul Krugman, LOL! That's hilarious. Let me guess what Krugman said "Lets borrow more and spend more because digging a deeper hole usually works out better"? He along with Obama need to turn in their Nobels, Ones a drone killer and the other cannot count.

Darwin's choice

And,again, still full of chit! I don't believe 3 million have even made an inquiry into obamafail!, CAN'T BE TALKING ABOUT ALL THE MILLIONS WHO"VE LOST THEIR COVERAGE DUE TO CANCELLATIONS????

You freaking jerk, they DO NOT COUNT for positive sign up's, however, they are more proof of obama's failure!!


Re:" At the end of December, 3 million+ were signed up, compared to original projections of 4 million signed up by Dec. 31st. Encouragingly, sign ups grew exponentially in December, after the website revamp."

If we accept your contention that 3 million signed up, which many don't accept, how many have paid? You aren't covered if you don'y pay for insurance. I know obama asked the insurance companies to float it for a month, I have yet to see where they agreed to do so. How many of that 3 million signed up for medicaid instead? Do they even know? They won't say how many have paid, is it because the don't want to say? Any website where you buy something can tell you immediatly how many folks have paid for their purchase, why not obamascare? They have had nearly 3 years to set up the website, OK they might have had to advertise for bids, that would take, at most 6 months leaving 2 1/2 years to write the code set up the parameters and write the code. It was screwed up and they have had 3 months to fix what took them 2 1/2 years to screw up. What are the real numbers? And what and where is the backup to those real numbers?


Wow so the Patriot Act wasn't written in a couple of days either? I'm shocked!


I know you're being sarcastic (at least I HOPE you are!), but I still want to say that you're right. The USA PATRIOT Act is yet another gargantuan government encroachment comprised of a long-time DOJ "wish list" that languished in a desk somewhere on Capitol Hill until Americans were scared enough to willingly trade liberty for perceived security.

Ironic, I think, that it was largely the progressive left who opposed this kind of errosion of liberty. They were, of course, absolutely right to do so! But now, with comparable laws, mandates, regulations, etc. doing just as much (or more) damage, it's all okay!

No, it ISN'T all okay. Democrats need to stop blindly following Democrats and hating Republicans. Republicans need to stop blindly following Republicans and hating Democrats. Something is either right or wrong, not Democratic or Republican! And in the case of the USA PATRIOT Act and Obamacare, there's little difference in the growth caused to Big Government or the invasions of private, law-abiding American citizens. The infringements in both cases are enormous no matter WHO championed/champions them!


Its funny how you always talk about the fringe in one sentence and your next sentence you run out to the fringe. You are really confused what the fringe is. You Liston to false news and Limbaugh and use their talking points to no end. So you really fit into following the far republican fringe and hating Democrats.

Dr. Information

The headline should read "Health law leaves everyone in limbo"


Doc, apparently you have a different definition of "everybody" than I do. I don't have any personal acquaintances who have lost coverage under Obamacare. I do, however, know of people who now have coverage who didn't, and people who are now receiving coverage for less money than they used to.

Darwin's choice

Like Oblunder, your continued lies are just that. More positive reinforcement for obama fail!!!!!!


Re: " I do, however, know of people who now have coverage who didn't, and people who are now receiving coverage for less money than they used to."

Lets see just how believable this statement is. There are 320 million people in this country. you claim 3 million have signed up... that is less than 1% no matter how you cut it. And you claim to know more than 1 person who has signed up and is saving with obamascare. The statistics don't favor your claim.

I know I don't know that many people well enough to ask them about their healthcare insurance. We all have seen people make claims on tv and the internet that we don't know and I would say some save and some pay more, and most are probaly paying about the same as before, or close to it.

In other words I don't believe your claim. Math doesn't back up your claim. Your claim would be an extreme outlier on a chart.

Dr. Information

I'm calling BS on coaster once again as well. As if he's going around tallying up everyone he runs into and what their insurance has done. I know more people and I'm directly involved with insurance daily. I've yet to meet one person who has raved about obamacare.

Also 3 million plus have not signed up. Only 2 million have at the end of December. Fact. Factor in all those who have lost their plan and you are still at a negative. Failure.


Limbo or WORSE! News stories are now starting to crop of of people TURNED AWAY at hospitals, or who leave voluntarily when told they'll have to personally pay bills estimated to be well beyond their means to pay.

Funny how in our previous "broken" and "irresponsible" system you didn't hear about people with chest pains being denied care (that's a story out of Virginia yesterday)!


A friend of mine is a VF. He says they receive $150 per year. So that payment plus being eligible for PERS would make them an "employee" IMO. To bad Nancy Pelosi did not advocate reading the tax (ACA is not a law determined by the SCOTUS)before voting on it!


Why I carry Fire Insurance with State Farm.

Dr. Information

And kurt is out in left field once again playing with his imaginary friends. Wow.


Still thinking J.Stackhouse is great? Never left Huron County ever?

Dr. Information

I'm in south FL where it's warm. Still stuck in Ohio during the cold months eh? Sucks to be you. Who's laughing now.


Can't have it both ways. Stated years ago when decent jobs leave services decline. Errr. Could give a rat's *** where you are. Again my point is independence & happiness. Things alien to your mindset. (yeah the fire & hot tub is incredible too)