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Will new health law hurt fire departments?

Chiefs worry they cant afford affordable care

Volunteer fire districts across the country and locally are concerned the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — which took effect Jan. 1 — will force them to pay health insurance costs they can’t afford.

Marion County District 1 Fire Chief Kevin Henson said in a recent press release that unintended consequences of the new health care law may have serious consequences for Oregon’s fire departments.

Provisions in the Affordable Care Act — informally known as Obamacare — would require volunteer firefighters working 30 hours a week or more to be considered full-time employees, Henson said, forcing fire departments to provide health insurance or pay a fine if they are large enough.

“The current (language) in the Affordable Care Act says organizations that have 50 or more employees are required to participate in Obamacare,” Henson said.

The question that has everyone confused is: Are volunteer firefighters considered employees?

Federal agencies have different definitions.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a volunteer as just that, but the Internal Revenue Service defines volunteer firefighters as employees.

Henson, a member of the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association, said fire chiefs asked the IRS more than a year ago to clarify definitions between the two federal agencies, but have not received answers.

With nearly two-thirds of Oregon’s fire departments volunteer or mostly volunteer-run, he said the impact of the Affordable Care Act on fire departments would be devastating.

“A number of fire departments would have to get rid of their firefighter volunteers because they don’t have the money to pay them,” Henson said.

Fire districts across the country echo that concern.

On Dec. 10, U.S. Rep Lou Barletta, R-Pa., introduced a bill to exempt volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel from the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., of Hood River, is one of 76 to have co-sponsored the bill.

Walden said volunteer firefighters and emergency responders shouldn’t be forced to choose between buying life-saving equipment and complying with IRS mandates under the new health care law.

“I’m co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to protect these volunteer units from Obamacare’s mandate, so they can focus on their mission: keeping Oregonians safe,” he added.

Deputy Fire Chief Phil Schneider of Sandy Fire District 72 is hoping the bill becomes law.

Schneider said originally his fire district talked to insurance companies and they thought they’d be OK.

“We do W-2s for our people to be legal with the IRS,” he said.

But now he’s not so sure.

“We are all concerned,” he said. “This could be a huge effect on us for sure.”

Sandy’s fire district has about 50 volunteers and 10 paid employees.

Like many volunteer fire districts in East County, Sandy’s volunteers use a point system, not hours, to keep track of the time they work.

“Volunteers go out on calls and they get so many points,” he said.

Henson, of Marion County, said it also is unclear if volunteers’ “stand-by” hours count as regular hours.

“(Volunteers) could have their pager on three nights a week and that’s already 36 hours,” Henson said.

Schneider said most of Sandy’s volunteer firefighters have regular jobs and get insurance through them.

He said the Affordable Care Act would be a huge financial burden for the Sandy department.

“We don’t have the funding to do that,” Schneider said.

Fire Chief Phil Dearixon of Multnomah County Fire District 14 in Corbett said the Affordable Care Act doesn’t appear to affect them based on the two criteria.

District 14 has only 38 volunteers, he said. “We don’t meet the 50 minimum.”

As for the 30 hours per week requirement, Dearixon said it depends on the week. Volunteer firefighters’ workload varies week to week, he said.

“It’s very seldom that we’d have a volunteer putting in 30 hours a week,” Dearixon said.

“We average about 400 responses a year. In the summer months, we may have several responses in a week that would put us above the 30-hour mark.”

Until the new system takes effect, Dearixon doesn’t know for sure whether the new health care law will have unforeseen consequences.

“Nobody’s really exactly sure how it’s going to impact people,” he said.

A representative at the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association, who declined to give her name, said they also are waiting for everything to be sorted out.

“We honestly don’t know at this point. We are in the process of trying to asses that ourselves,” she said.

“It depends whether volunteer fire departments with 50 or more employees will be required to provide health care. If that happens, I think we will see a decrease in volunteer activity because the departments won’t be able to afford it,” she said.

The Affordable Care Act conflict with the IRS comes as Oregon’s fire districts are still trying to resolve a state level problem regarding volunteer firefighters and the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), the state’s pension plan.

“The biggest hurdle is clarifying that volunteer firefighters are not eligible for (PERS),” Henson said. “Volunteer firefighters do not choose to volunteer for the purposes of making money. Having said that, they should not lose money either, and fire agencies should be able to provide a reasonably nominal compensation for the countless hours of service that they freely give to our communities throughout Oregon without triggering unnecessary PERS auditing, paperwork and additional expenses.”

Henson is chairman of a task force called Volunteer 360, created by the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association last year. 

The purpose of the task force, he said, was to review the various regulatory agencies at both the state and federal level regarding the definition and treatment of volunteer firefighters. 

A 50-page document addresses several areas where state and federal agencies often have conflicting definitions and policies with regard to volunteer firefighters’ reimbursement and compensation issues.

Henson said the document shows “you can’t have volunteer firefighters and do any level of compensation for their services without getting stuck in state-federal maze of ‘when do you apply which to what.’”

Henson said fire chiefs want to first resolve the PERS issue, and then deal with the Affordable Care Act, which he said was poor planning and will take longer to unwind.

He’s confident the latter can be fixed.

“I cannot imagine Congress not passing a law that exempts volunteer firefighters from the Affordable Care Act,” the Marion County District 1 fire chief said.

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