WASHINGTON — Volunteer first responders who put their lives at risk and serve their communities for free could find themselves out of service under Obamacare rules that threatens to shutter fire departments across the nation.
National fire associations have been lobbing the Obama administration since September saying the costly insurance mandate for volunteers would bankrupt firehouses that rely heavily on community members to work for free, but their pleas have been ignored.
However, Colorado Republican Cory Gardner on Thursday said he would introduce legislation to exempt volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians from complying with law that mandates businesses with more than 50 employees who work 30 hours a week purchase insurance for workers.
“At a time when President Obama and his administration have bypassed Congress and given waivers to its friends and allies, we now must pass legislation to make sure that our volunteer first responders can continue to do the jobs they have selflessly signed-up for,” Gardner said in a letter to Colorado volunteer fire stations.
According to the 2012 National Fire Department Census, 80 percent of Colorado’s 325 fire departments are registered as volunteer or mostly volunteer agencies.
“Not only is it disturbing that this provision was included in the law, but the administration’s silence and inaction are all the reason for more concern,” Gardner said.
Dave Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the IRS has refused to acknowledge their requests that the rule be clarified so that volunteers are not treated as employees.
“We really don’t know how the IRS would count volunteer hours, it’s hard to know how many volunteers are working on a regular basis to be considered full-time,” Finger said.
Volunteer firefighters also spend a lot of time being on-call, so it is unclear whether those hours would count towards the total 30, or if only the time responding to emergencies would be counted.
“Whether that means that the IRS is coming in and levying penalties or whether it just means agencies are cutting back on the number of volunteers, that it has or limiting the number of hours they can serve, or even eliminating recruitment and retentions benefits, none of those would be positive outcomes,” Finger said.
Nationwide there are more than 780,000 volunteer firefighters plus 300,000 emergency medical technicians that would be affected by Obamacare.
If the Obamacare insurance is not purchased, the firehouses will have to use money from community fundraisers to special district taxes to pay fines.
“In Colorado, words cannot adequately describe our dependence on these firefighting and paramedic forces – I speak for all of Colorado when I say how thankful we really are for their work. My oversight and focus on this issue will not stop until I am assured that this provision is struck down,” Gardner said.
“The lack of progress by the Obama administration to correct this issue is why I have introduced legislation that fixes this immediately. Those who serve as volunteer first responders are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, neighbors and friends,” Gardner said.