Will the Affordable Care Act really “shut down” volunteer fire departments? The article below checks the facts
By Carole Fader, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
Dec. 28– Viral emails claim that the Affordable Care Act forces fire departments to provide health insurance to their volunteers. The emails say that this will force many volunteer departments to shut down. Is it true?
There are more than 30,000 fire departments in the U.S.; a little more than 20,000 are all volunteer, with another 5,445 mostly volunteer, the National Volunteer Fire Council told FactCheck.org. Altogether, more than 783,000 volunteer firefighters served in the U.S. in 2012, the council estimated.
So that would be a lot of health insurance. But the IRS has not yet ruled on whether volunteer firefighters are exempt from the insurance mandate.
The ACA mandates that businesses with more than 50 full-time workers (those working at least 30 hours per week) are required to provide health insurance to all employees or face a tax penalty of $2,000 per employee after the first 30 employees. But that mandate was postponed, and now won’t go into effect until 2015.
The crux of the matter is that the IRS hasn’t yet said how the law relates to volunteers. The lack of information is producing worry among fire officials that they’d have to provide insurance to volunteers, or face a penalty.
The concern is not entirely unfounded, FactCheck.org reports. A longstanding IRS policy designates volunteer firefighters to be “employees” for tax purposes. That’s because some volunteer firefighters receive a small stipend for things like travel or other expenses.
Heather Schafer, executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council, has already sent a letter to the IRS, saying, “This would be a public safety disaster. Volunteer fire and EMS agencies do not have the resources to provide their members with health insurance. Communities that rely on volunteer emergency responders are commonly rural, with small tax bases and higher-than-average rates of poverty. Most volunteer agencies raise money by serving meals at the fire station, selling raffle tickets or holding community events just to make ends meet. The cost of complying with the Employer Shared Responsibility Provision of the PPACA could exceed the operating budgets of many volunteer agencies, which mainly consist of paying insurance, fuel, electricity, training and equipment. …”
FactCheck.org also brings up that there’s been no resolution on how hours would be counted. “Would it include training and maintaining the firehouse or time spent on fundraising? Those questions remain unanswered,” the fact-finding organization said.
The IRS is supposed to soon release final rules, which hopefully will address all the issues. But even if the IRS rules do not go the firefighters’ way, bipartisan bills in the House and Senate have been introduced to ensure that emergency services volunteers are not counted as full-time employees under the ACA.
David Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, told FactCheck.org that he has not spoken to a single legislator who believes it was the intent of the health care law to include volunteers in the employer mandate.
And Finger also said he doesn’t believe that thousands of volunteer fire companies would close, Many companies would be exempt simply because they do not have 50 full-time volunteers, he told FactCheck.org, and even the ones that do would likely take “steps to protect themselves” — such as limiting the number of volunteers or the number of hours they work — long before they’d actually close.
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