Monday, October 20th, 2014

The federal health care law and volunteer firefighters

This graphic was posted to Facebook by Generation Opportunity, a group that opposes the Affordable Care Act, on Dec. 10, 2013
This graphic was posted to Facebook by Generation Opportunity, a group that opposes the Affordable Care Act, on Dec. 10, 2013

New guidelines from the U.S. Treasury Department are giving some employers more time to get insurance for their workers before facing a penalty. But the guidelines also settle an issue that we’ve fact-checked before on how regulations will affect volunteer firefighters.

Back in December, PolitiFact readers flagged a Facebook post by the conservative group Generation Opportunity that said "Obamacare could force thousands of volunteer fire stations to cut service or close entirely."

It turned out there was some merit to those concerns, though they were exaggerated by Generation Opportunity, the same group that ran anti-Obamacare ads depicting Uncle Sam giving a gynecological exam. We ended up giving the claim a Half True.

On Feb. 10, 2014, the Treasury Department released final guidelines for the employer mandate that requires large businesses to provide workers insurance. The new rules specifically exempt volunteer fire and rescue units from that provision, a clarification that previously wasn’t included.

Here is what was at issue:

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with the equivalent of 50 or more full-time workers must provide health insurance. If not, they face a penalty of $2,000 for every worker after 30 (though that mandate was delayed until January 2015 and on Feb. 10, President Barack Obama again pushed it back another year for employers with 50-99 full-time employees).

Whether the employer mandate applied to volunteer fire and rescue units was unclear in December. While many of the 25,000 volunteer fire stations are small and serve rural units, some larger counties and municipalities were concerned their volunteer stations would be counted with other government employees. Providing insurance to volunteer firefighters would be very costly to their departments, they said.

The original draft regulations did not mention volunteer rescue workers.

Adding to the confusion was a previous ruling from the Treasury Department that said volunteer firefighters were considered full-time employees for tax purposes, meaning their benefits could be taxed.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle presented legislation to exempt volunteer rescue units and the National Volunteer Fire Council pushed the Obama administration to take action.

The final regulations addressed their concerns.

"Hours contributed by bona fide volunteers for a government or tax-exempt entity, such as volunteer firefighters and emergency responders, will not cause them to be considered full-time employees," according to a Treasury Department fact sheet.

David Finger, director of government relations at the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the Feb. 10 changes were "consistent with what we’d asked them to do back in September prior to the bills even being introduced."

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who introduced legislation to exempt volunteer rescue workers, said he, too, was satisfied with the administration’s decision.