Volunteer firefighters fear Obamacare could hurt system - KCTV5

Volunteer firefighters fear Obamacare could hurt system

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Some volunteer fire departments believe their efforts to save lives and protect property could be undermined by part of the Affordable Health Care Act.

There is an effort in the Republican-controlled U.S. House to change the law to exempt volunteer fire departments.

Even though they call themselves volunteer agencies, firefighters can be paid a per call amount that is essentially gas money. The Northwest Consolidated Fire District pays firefighters $10 to $20 per call.

"It would increase our personnel costs immensely if we are required to provide healthcare for all of our volunteers as it's written," said Mark Billquist, operations chief for the fire district in DeSoto.

The fear is that the tens of thousands of volunteers would be lost from fire protection districts if the districts have to provide health insurance.

"To come down and say, 'Well, you must provide health insurance.' It's a noble cause, but it's not what volunteer firefighting is for," Billquist said. "It's an IRS rule. We were told by the IRS that we don't have volunteers because we pay them by the call. We have employees. We treat them as employees, but we call them volunteers."

Billquist said he hopes Congress or the IRS will provide clarity to firefighters who work more than 30 hours a week.

President Barack Obama has delayed until 2015 the requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees offer health insurance. The question is if that requirement affects fire protection districts.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is sponsoring a bill to exempt volunteer fire departments from the requirements.

"Forcing volunteer fire companies to comply with Obamacare won't extend health insurance to the uninsured, but rather close firehouses in undeserved communities," he said recently. "I'm sure that wasn't their intention, but it does concern me that it's taking so long for this to be clarified."

Billquist said that personnel costs are a large part of fire districts' budgets, and no one wants to raise taxes to cover additional costs. He said few volunteers reach the 30-hour threshold but said the districts benefit from dedicated firefighters.

"But you always have to worry about what's down the road. In the past we've had volunteers who almost lived here, putting in a lot of time. They were motivated and wanted experience. We don't want to discourage that. We want to give them a good experience and good training. If we have to watch their hours, that just creates more expense for us, makes it harder to operate," he said.

He hopes Barletta's effort is successful.

"We will continue as we do now. Hopefully legislation will come down that says volunteer firefighters are not subject to ACA, that's what we hope for," he said. "In our business, people are our No. 1 asset. We can buy trucks, but you have to have people to get the job done."

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