In the US, there are over 750,000 volunteer firefighters. This number represents 72% of all firefighters in the US. The IRS is trying to define the provisions of Obamacare, and the way that the law is written now would require volunteer fire departments to provide health insurance to their volunteers. This would be prohibitively expensive, and bring volunteer firefighting to a halt.
One of Obamacare’s reforms is known as the “Shared Responsibility
Provision,” which requires that large employers offer health insurance
to their employees. The act defines large employers as those with 50
or more full-time employees (FTEs) or FTE equivalents. The act further
defines an FTE to be an employee working 30 or more hours per week.
So any time a volunteer works more than 30 hours per week, the volunteer department with more than 50 volunteers would be required to provide that volunteer with insurance.Even though the volunteer system was disbanded years ago, Osceola county, Florida once had a dozen individual volunteer fire companies providing protection to the rural areas of the county, while career stations provided service to the more urbanized areas of the county. This meant that each individual volunteer department had fewer than 50 volunteers, collectively there were several hundred “employees” that would have needed insurance under Obamacare.
The uncertainty surrounding the Shared Responsibility Provision is
compounded for fire departments due to conflicting federal guidance on
whether a volunteer firefighter or emergency medical provider is an
employee of their fire department. While the Department of Labor
classified most volunteers as non-employees, the IRS is responsible for
enforcing the Shared Responsibility Provision and considers all
volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees
of their fire department.
Simply changing this IRS rule for the purposes of Obamacare won’t work, either. See, the rule was passed in response to a policy that many career fire departments once had, where they required their full time paid personnel to work a certain number of hours each year without pay as a volunteers.
All of this is causing volunteer departments to curtail or even shut down operations. Burlington, Washington has 9 full time and 30 volunteer firefighters. The city’s fire department announced early in November that they will have to curtail volunteer’s activities.
“If we were to extend full medical benefits to those firefighters, it
would be $750,000 that the city hadn’t anticipated. And given the entire
fire budget is $1.6 million, that’s a substantial portion of the
budget,” said City Administrator Harrison. “I’m not sure where we’d get that money.”