(Harrisburg) - Pennsylvania's more 2,000 volunteer fire companies could be getting caught up in the fine print of the federal Affordable Care Act.
The ACA requires organizations with 50 or more employees to offer them health insurance, and the Internal Revenue Service considers volunteer firefighters employees for tax purposes.
With 70 volunteers on the roster at the Lafayette Volunteer Fire Company in Lancaster County’s East Lampeter Township, Deputy Chief Scott Hershey says he’s concerned they will be subject to the health care law’s so-called “pay or play” mandate.
Republican congressman Lou Barletta has taken notice of similar concerns cropping up in his district, which includes parts of Cumberland, Dauphin, Northumberland and Perry counties.
"The question there is, because they are already classified, in the Internal Revenue Code, as employees, will they need to comply with the Affordable Care Act and therefore any department that has 50 volunteers or more would be required to provide health insurance to the volunteers or pay a fine," he explains.
The other number tied to the employer insurance mandate is 30. Individuals who work more than 30-hours a week for large employers must be offered insurance.
Bob Timko, a volunteer firefighter with the Fairview Township Fire Department in Cumberland County, says 30 hours is a hard number to quantify for volunteers who are essentially on-call around-the-clock.
“Is it only 30 hours when we go on actual calls, or does that include my training hours each week? Or, for example, this past weekend I was home and I was waiting on the snow, if something happened I would go. Do they consider me just staying in my house here, on call?” Timko asks. “So it's an interpretation really.”
From left to right: Hershey, Barletta and Timko
Timko, who’s also Pennsylvania’s alternate delegate for the National Volunteer Fire Council, says most departments he knows don't have even close to the amount of money needed to pay for health insurance, and he can't imagine more fundraisers for benefits that were never expected.
“I've been doing this for 36 years, starting out as a junior firefighter at 14 in Frackville, Pennsylvania. In all my career I've never met anybody who said, as a volunteer, I'm doing it for the benefits. They do it for their community, for human kindness...”
It's a hot topic of conversation inside volunteer fire halls across the state and nation.
Congressman Barletta calls it an unintended consequence of the ACA. But it’s one, he says, with public safety implications.
“And therefore volunteer fire departments, I believe, many of them would be forced to close. We know the volunteer fire companies could never afford to provide health insurance to the volunteers. They do fundraising just to provide themselves with gear and training,” says Barletta.
“So, I've asked for a clarification. We did not get any.”
Barletta’s letter points out that volunteer firefighters save Pennsylvania taxpayers an estimated $6-billion each year.
In lieu of waiting on the IRS, Barletta has introduced legislation that would exempt volunteer fire and emergency medical services companies from the insurance mandate.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the US Senate, where Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is part of a bipartisan coalition spearheading the effort.
They've received support from the state House in Harrisburg, which voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging Congress to pass the exemption immediately.
Pennsylvania's Democratic US Senator Bob Casey also raised firefighters' concerns when the nominee for IRS Commissioner appeared before the Finance Committee.
Casey says John Koskinen committed to address the issue as one of his first items of business upon confirmation.
But Koskinen’s gesture isn't stopping Barletta and volunteer firefighters from sounding the alarm.
The employer mandate isn't scheduled to take effect until 2015, but they want an exemption granted as soon as possible, so volunteer firefighters can keep their focus on public safety.
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