Thursday, January 09, 2014

Obamacare requirements pose risk for volunteer fire departments that can't afford health coverage

Federal health reform could be complicating the future of volunteer fire departments, often the only source of firefighters in rural areas, Alanna Durkin reports for The Associated Press"The volunteers are considered employees for tax purposes, a classification that grew out of an ongoing effort to attract firefighters by offering them such incentives as stipends, retirement benefits and free gym memberships. That leaves open the question of whether the volunteer firefighters fall under the health care law's requirement that employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week must provide health insurance for them. Fire departments say they can't afford to pay such a cost." (AP photo by Robert Bukaty: Freeport, Me., Fire Chief Darrel Fournier)

Under the law, many departments would be forced to pay for insurance, or be fined for not providing it, which means "departments would likely be forced to reduce the number of hours firefighters can volunteer or eliminate the benefit programs, officials said," Durkin writes. In areas like Freeport, Me., the cost to the city and taxpayers to provide insurance to the five full-time volunteer firefighters would be $75,000. The fine could be $150,000. During the harsh Maine winters, the department employs as many as 50 volunteers,and if works more than 30 hours in a week, the department would be required to provide full health coverage.

Freeport and other small towns could avoid the penalty by cutting back hours, and hiring more volunteers, but that's easier said than done in towns with small populations and limited trained volunteers, Durkin writes. In response, "Maine's U.S. senators are backing a recently introduced bill aimed at ensuring volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders are exempt from the health care law requirement." (Read more)

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