Written by Wendy Kreitzman Friday, 03 January 2014 00:00
The nation’s new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has a provision that could put local fire departments—as well as local governments—at considerable financial risk. Firefighting departments with 50 or more members could be forced to provide health insurance for their volunteer firefighters or else pay substantial fines.
“It would really hurt the volunteer fire departments,” said William F. Murray, president of the Volunteer Firefighters Association of Southern New York.
The health care law has specific insurance requirements for employers with 50 or more employees. While the U.S. Department of Labor terms these firefighters “volunteers,” the Internal Revenue Service classifies volunteer firefighters as employees.
According to Levittown Fire Commissioner Joel Bearman, insuring an entire department of 260 volunteer members, would send the local taxes skyrocketing.
“Thats a large burden,” Bearman said, “to cover volunteer firefighters with health insurance full-time.”
Members of Congress are aware of this issue, though so far, no changes have been made at the federal level.
“Volunteer firefighters provide an invaluable service to our communities and save lives. We need to make sure policies aren’t put in place that would be detrimental to fire departments on Long Island and across the nation,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D. 3rd district). “I am reaching out to the IRS to make certain that they take into account the unique situation of volunteer firefighters and ensure that fire departments aren’t saddled with costs they can’t handle.”
Local village mayors have written to the congressman and to New York’s U.S. Senators, urging them to intervene on behalf of volunteer fire and EMS organizations and exempt them from the Affordable Care Act.
Bearman said he has already come in contact with state Sen. Kemp Hannon and other local politicians to try and pass an exemption for volunteer fire departments.
“We’re hoping they’ll give us the exemption,” Bearman said.
Spokesmen from the Vigilant and Manhasset-Lakeville fire departments said that their volunteers are already able to receive health insurance by buying into the New York State plan, with their own personal funds, through the Town of North Hempstead. Additionally, many volunteer firefighters have health insurance through their employers.
— Additional reporting by Daniel Offner