Cleveland Plain Dealer - Ohio volunteer fire departments fear being burned by the Affordable Care Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chief Scott Hildenbrand worries the Affordable Care Act could devastate volunteer fire and ambulance departments like the one he runs in Hambden Township.
Hildenbrand, who is president of the Geauga County Fire Chiefs’ Association, fears the new law’s employer mandate will force volunteer fire and ambulance squads nationwide to provide health insurance to their volunteers or block them from working 30 hours a week – the law’s threshold for labeling workers as full time.
“A lot of times, a guy will work a 24-hour shift,” says Hildenbrand. “If you go by this law, he could only work one shift a week.”
The Internal Revenue Service has long considered fire and ambulance volunteers to be employees for tax purposes because some get small stipends or are reimbursed for travel and other expenses. Although fire departments around the country have asked the IRS whether it will regard volunteers as employees under the Affordable Care Act, the agency has not issued a ruling.
In response to questions from The Plain Dealer, the Treasury Department issued a statement that said it has received “a number of comments concerning emergency services volunteers and other volunteers in response to proposed regulations issued last December.”
“We are taking those comments into account as we work toward issuing final regulations on the employer responsibility provision,” the statement said. “Pending issuance of final regulations, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on their likely content.”
Hildenbrand says an IRS determination that fire and ambulance volunteers are employees under the Affordable Care Act would cause hardships at many departments.
Buying health insurance for every volunteer would be prohibitively expensive, he says. Paying a $2,000 fine for those who aren’t insured would also be costly. Even limiting the hours each volunteer works could break the bank, he says, because departments would have to expand their rosters to cover all shifts, equipping each new volunteer with the necessary jacket, helmet, pants, gloves and boots at a cost of $3,000 apiece.
“Many departments won’t be able to afford it,” says Hildenbrand, adding that fire volunteers are usually insured through their full-time jobs, and departments buy worker’s comp insurance to cover on-duty injuries.
Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association President Porter Welch of Pickaway County’s Scioto Township Fire Department says big city fire departments staffed by full-timers already insure their workers, and roughly 70 percent of the state’s 1,300 fire departments are exclusively run by volunteers, or are operated by a combination of paid full-time and part-timers, as well as unpaid volunteers.
He estimates 910 of the state’s fire departments could be affected by the law because they’ve got enough full-time, part-time and volunteer workers to be pushed over the law’s 50-worker threshold.
“Right now, we are all waiting with bated breath as to what the IRS’ final regulations will be,” said Welch. “It could have serious impact.”
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Congress members have introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to ensure that emergency services volunteers don’t count as full-time employees under the Affordable Care Act. Backers include Republican Representatives Dave Joyce of Russell Township, Bob Latta of Bowling Green, Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, Steve Stivers of the Columbus area and Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman.
Sponsors say they’re optimistic the law would pass Congress if IRS applies the employer responsibility provisions to volunteer fire companies and ambulance services. The bills introduced Dec. 10 have been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
“If the employer mandate is incorrectly implemented, volunteer fire departments may be forced to comply with these requirements, and that could force them to close or curtail their emergency response services,” Joyce said Wednesday in a House of Representatives floor speech . “This legislation will ensure that those brave men and women are protected from the employer mandate and can continue to serve.”
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