Wildland firefighters win federal health benefits

President Barack Obama will make federal health insurance available to about 8,000 temporary wildland firefighters, a White House official said Tuesday.

Despite the grueling and dangerous work they do, the 8,000 firefighters aren't covered by federal health insurance because they are temporary seasonal employees. Under federal personnel rules, such employees can't buy into federal health insurance plans.

The White House official said firefighters will get access to federal insurance plans this month. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's decision hasn't been formally announced.

Temporary seasonal firefighters make up more than half of the 15,000 wildland firefighters on the federal payroll this busy wildfire season.

Obama's decision was first reported by The Denver Post and came after stories by The Post, The Associated Press and others about the firefighters' dilemma.

Members of a South Dakota-based hotshot crew who fought massive wildfires in Colorado and other states this year launched a petition drive seeking health benefits, largely out of anger over a colleague who was left with a $70,000 hospital bill after his son was born prematurely.

Their petition quickly gathered more than 125,000 signatures, bolstered by this year's historic fire season in the West and the ongoing national debate over health care.

"That's amazing. Wow," said Constance Van Kley, wife of firefighter Nathan Ochs, when she was told of Obama's decision. The couple had no health insurance when their son, Rudy, was born seven weeks premature in 2008.

The hospital forgave most of their $70,000 bill, but it was their experience that spurred Ochs, John Lauer and other firefighters to start their petition drive.

"When we were talking about it in our kitchen 2½ months ago, John thought he'd be working on it for about a year and there was a 5 percent chance it would go anywhere at all," Van Kley said.

"It makes me feel really hopeful that you can look at a problem, see a problem, and get this kind of response in this amount of time," she said. "We feel really heartened to know that people care about the work that firefighters do."

Lauer said he was "awestruck" by the speed of the decision.

"It really is going to make a big difference in a lot of people's lives," he said.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced legislation Tuesday that would give the firefighters access to federal insurance benefits, but Obama's move apparently makes that unnecessary.

The White House official who confirmed Obama's decision said the president had ordered the Agriculture and Interior departments, which hire the bulk of federal firefighters, and the Office of Personnel Management to open the insurance plans to firefighters.

DeGette said she was elated by the decision.

"In recent weeks, this fight has clearly reminded all of us of what we owe to the people whose sacrifice and personal risk protect our homes, our families, and our communities," she said in a written statement.

Firefighters are covered by workers compensation if they're hurt on the job, but that doesn't cover offseason health problems or help their families.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, a labor union, estimates it would cost the federal government $17.5 million a year to pay its share of premiums for seasonal firefighters working for the Forest Service, which employs about 70 percent of federal firefighters. The rest work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.

Since 2003, 157 people have died battling wildfires in the U.S., according to the International Association of Wildland Fire. Injury statistics were unavailable.