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‘Obamacare’ may impact volunteer firefighters

Thanks to Obamacare’s “employer mandate,” volunteer firefighters from all across the country may find themselves getting swept into the national health care reform law whether they like it or not.

Even though they’re volunteers, and most never signed on to get any benefits, local firefighters could still find themselves victims of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance. Full-time employees are defined as an employee who works 30 or more hours a week.

Because the Internal Revenue Service uses hourly standards to determine whether workers are full-time or part-time, the employer mandate could affect some volunteer firefighters and emergency services personnel.

According to the IRS, for tax purposes these volunteers are in fact workers, so for the ones who work an average of 30 or more hours per week over an extended period of time, the health insurance could be required. And if the employer doesn’t provide the insurance, then they will face a tax.

Although most local fire departments don’t usually boast 50 or more volunteers at any given time, the fear for counties like Halifax that have 12 individual volunteer fire departments is the government may count multiple departments in a single county as one large department. That would mean the county could be required to provide insurance benefits or pay the tax penalty.

That’s why the International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means counties such as Halifax must offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don’t.

So far the IRS hasn’t made that decision.

Local officials in volunteer departments said they haven’t heard much about it, and those who have question how volunteers could be considered employees.

Most Halifax County volunteer firefighters do not volunteer an average of 30 hours per week, according to Halifax County Administrator Jim Halasz.

Only in cases of an extreme emergency such as a tornado or other catastrophic event would local firefighters find it necessary to log that many volunteer hours in a week, and that wouldn’t be for a prolonged period, he added.

“The question truly is has the IRS ruled that, and if that’s true are any volunteers here volunteering 30 or more hours in a given week,” Halasz said. “It seems very unlikely a volunteer firefighter would be able to do that.”

The county administrator said he and Emergency Services Coordinator Kirby Saunders had “chatted” about this issue, and they kept going back to the question of whether any volunteers volunteer over 30 hours in a week.

In order for the mandate to be effective, Halasz said he believes a volunteer would have to volunteer 30 or more hours a week for more than just one week a year to be considered an employee. 

“It’s got to be more than that,” he added.

If the county were to be required to pay health insurance premiums for all the county volunteers under the Affordable Care Act, Halasz said something would have to give.

“If we do have to deal with this issue, from a financial perspective if the county is put in this situation to fund insurance for volunteer firefighters, we would not be able to fund equipment too. It would boil down to just making sure the firefighters don’t volunteer 30 or more hours in a week,” he added.

However, if the volunteers were to be limited to time they can volunteer, he acknowledged that may create another problem for county fire departments.

“But so does having to pay $10,000 a year for health insurance,” he added. “Sometimes you have to make choices, and we do have choices on how we manage,” he said, adding, “I don’t believe the IRS will enforce this. It’s just not going to happen.”

Halasz said unlike career firefighters, many volunteers already have separate full-time jobs that cover their insurance and don’t join the fire department anticipating they will receive health insurance.

“They join to volunteer,” he said. 

Most times they are seeking a way to contribute to their communities. 

Halasz believes this is “a manageable situation” where the county can comply with the law and still have volunteers serve in a beneficial manner.