Health care act hits South Whidbey fire district volunteers

While millions of Americans get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the 85 volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians of South Whidbey Fire/EMS are in limbo.

The legislation commonly known as “Obamacare” may force volunteer fire districts to pay for health insurance for volunteers, though not until 2015. A clause in the act states that companies with more than 50 workers must buy health insurance or pay a fine of $2,000 per volunteer if coverage is not offered. However, a discrepancy between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor has put fire districts on hold. The IRS labels volunteer firefighters as employees if they’re on the job more than 30 hours per week, but the Department of Labor considers them volunteers.

“Part of our challenge is that we have two federal organizations to satisfy,” said South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer.

The health insurance issue is one fire districts across the United States of America and Whidbey Island are facing, or rather, waiting to face. Legislation that would exempt volunteer emergency workers was introduced in Congress on Dec. 10, clarifying that “qualified emergency services volunteers” are not considered employees under the health care act.

“I’m confident that will pass,” Palmer said. “... if Congress fails to pass an exemption for emergency workers, that will give us a challenge.”

Palmer said he did not have an estimate of how much it would cost South Whidbey Fire/EMS to insure its qualified volunteers. Definitions of what constitutes as a working hour need to be ironed out, he said, giving an example of a volunteer who may be on-call for 24 hours and never respond to an emergency. Does that count as work for the purposes of the health care act?

“We have some volunteers who take one call a week, so they may be out two hours,” Palmer said. “Right now, your guess is as good as mine. We’re at the whim of the federal government. I can tell you I would not imagine it would be cheap.”

The “Bronze” plan, which covers 60 percent of health care costs, costs about $249 per month before cost assistance. However age, gender, location and other factors vary the cost. If South Whidbey Fire/EMS was penalized for not offering health care to its volunteers, the penalty would total $170,000. The district could buy insurance through the health care exchange for $3,000 per volunteer, if necessary.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, which has 70 volunteers, was also concerned about the health care act.

North Whidbey Fire Chief Marv Koorn said the district could stay under the 50 person full-time limit while hoping the emergency volunteer exemption was approved by Congress.

“Every volunteer fire department is faced with this exact same dilemma,” Palmer said.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS, in addition to its 85 volunteers, has six full-time staff and a full-time chief under contract that receive health benefits from the district. Palmer said he will monitor volunteer hours with more metrics this year and will give quarterly updates to the commissioners.


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