HAZLETON — U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta has raised the issue of whether some volunteer firefighters should receive health insurance coverage under the new federal Affordable Care Act.
The answer, which the Internal Revenue Service says it is researching, could have dire economic ramification for fire companies across Pennsylvania, said Barletta, who wants Obamacare repealed and new legislation written.
“Depending on the answer from the federal tax agency, fire companies across the nation could be forced to choose between swallowing massive cost increases under Obamacare and eliminating volunteer positions,” Barletta, R-Hazleton, said in his letter to the IRS.
But the answer may not come for a while. A spokesperson at the U.S. Treasury Department said Wednesday the agency has received comments concerning volunteer firefighters 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 spokesperson said. “Pending issuance of the final regulations, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on their likely content.”
Barletta said most fire companies don’t have 50 or more members, which would put them under threshold established in the health care law that requires employers with at least 50 employees to provide health insurance to those who work at least 30 hours per week or face a penalty.
“The IRS could include all employees of the municipality served by the volunteer firefighters,” Barletta said. “That would put most over the 50-member threshold. This needs clarification and we need it now.”
He said 97 percent of fire departments in Pennsylvania are either fully or mostly volunteer, which is the fourth-highest level in the nation, according to the 2012 National Fire Department Census conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said the IRS now treats all firefighters, volunteer or paid, as employees for federal tax purposes. By doing so, Barletta said under the Shared Responsibility Provision of Obamacare, there could result substantial cost increases for fire companies.
Under the health care law, employers with at least 50 employees must provide health insurance to those who work at least 30 hours per week or face a penalty.
“If Obamacare is the law of the land, then so is the law of unintended consequences, and there seems to be a lot of that going around these days. Just like the flu,” Barletta said.
It must be determined if volunteer firefighters are considered employees and therefore subject to the employer mandate under Obamacare and also how should volunteer time be counted to see if they’re working 30 hours, he said.
The second-term congressman said many communities rely exclusively upon volunteer fire departments for fire protection and emergency medical services. In those communities, Barletta said volunteers may receive nominal incentives and may be assigned to multiple 12- and 24-hour shifts — easily allowing them to work in excess of 30 hours per week.
In his letter to the IRS, Barletta stated that forcing volunteer fire companies to comply with the Shared Responsibility Provision will not extend health insurance to the uninsured — rather it will close firehouses and place communities at risk.
“How exactly would they total up hours on duty for volunteers?” Barletta said. “Does it mean when a volunteer is wearing a beeper or carrying a fire department cellphone? 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.”