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Fire departments voice concern over role of volunteers under ObamaCare

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FILE: 2013: GOP Rep. Lou Barletta at a Pennsylvania fire station. (Barletta.House.gov)

The backbone of small-town America's fire safety could be broken if the federal health care overhaul hits too hard. 

Fire departments and other emergency squads say they are still waiting to learn from the IRS whether they will have to pay for volunteers’ medical insurance under ObamaCare and that having to cover such costs would really hurt many small-budget operations.

President Obama’s signature health-care law requires businesses with more than 50 full-time employees to provide health insurance for them. However, whether the IRS considers volunteers full-time employees remains unclear, in part because some receive a stipend or other financial incentives.

“At this point, it’s pretty much wait and see,” Michael Berg, president of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad in Virginia, told The Daily Progress. “We’re an all-volunteer organization. …. There’s a lot of speculation.”

Volunteer groups around the country -- which operate in more rural areas and rely largely on fundraisers and donations to buy fire trucks and other rescue equipment -- have gotten some bipartisan help from Capitol Hill.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican, have sponsored legislation to exempt volunteer fire, medical and rescue personnel from full-time status.

“This is just another example of how ObamaCare was not well thought out,” Barletta said. “So, we’re left to try to pave over the potholes. And this is a big one -- possibly affecting fire stations nationwide,” Barletta said Dec. 11 upon introducing the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act.

He also said that classifying volunteers as full-time employees could result in “unbearable financial burdens” for agencies and is “threatening public safety.” 

Barletta said he wrote the IRS in November requesting clarifications.

The legislation has support from the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. 

“Agencies don’t have the resources to provide health benefits to their volunteers, and individual volunteers have no expectation of receiving such benefits from the agencies they serve,” said NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. 

The Obama administration this summer delayed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “employer mandate” until 2015. It was supposed to start Jan. 1, 2014, but was delayed to give officials more time to simplify the regulations.

The IRS has yet to give an official ruling. However, Treasury spokeswoman Victoria Esser recently told The Patriot-News of central Pennsylvania that the agency has received comments regarding the proposed regulations issued last December.

“We are taking those comments into account as we work toward issuing final regulations on the employer responsibility provision, 4980H of the Internal Revenue Code,” she said. “Pending issuance of the final regulations, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on their likely content."

ObamaCare defines a full-time employee as somebody working 30 hours or more.

Among the lingering questions is how the IRS would count volunteers’ hours.

“Does it mean when a volunteer is wearing a beeper or carrying a fire department cell phone?" Barletta asks. “Does it include downtime at the station house?  Listening to a scanner?  These are all legitimate questions raised since ObamaCare has been forced on Americans.”