Barletta Reintroduces Bill to Protect Volunteer Firefighters from Obamacare
Rep. Barletta with Bob Timko, volunteer firefighter with the Fairview Township Fire Company,
who first alerted the Congressman to the danger to fire companies from Obamacare.
WASHINGTON – Congressman Lou Barletta, PA-11, has reintroduced legislation to protect volunteer firefighters and emergency responders from the unintended consequences of Obamacare. Barletta’s bill, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, ensures that emergency services volunteers are not counted as full-time employees by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under the Employer Mandate of Obamacare. If volunteer fire companies were subject to the mandates of Obamacare, they could be liable for crippling new health care costs, causing many to have to close their doors.
“Firehouses and municipalities across the country need assurance that they wouldn’t have to pay costly fines or shut down. This bill provides them with that certainty,” Barletta said. “Public safety is too important a concern to leave to the whims of an unelected government bureaucracy like the IRS.”
Barletta authored the same legislation in the 113th Congress. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 11, 2014 by a unanimous vote of 410-to-0. When it reached the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid inserted controversial unemployment benefit language, effectively killing the bill. Following months of pressure from Barletta, other members of Congress, and firefighters, the IRS indicated that it will not count hours of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders when determining an employer’s full-time employees in compliance with Obamacare. Barletta, however, has continued to pursue passage of his legislation as insurance against future changes from the IRS.
Prior to Barletta’s pressure, the IRS declined to indicate how it would classify hours of service for emergency volunteers under Obamacare, meaning that fire companies and municipalities could be forced to provide volunteers with health insurance or pay a fine. Such a situation would saddle fire departments or municipalities with unbearable additional financial burdens, threatening their existence and endangering public safety.
“Volunteer firefighters are vital members of our communities, particularly in Pennsylvania,” Barletta said. “As a former mayor, I know just how important fire companies and emergency volunteers are to the health of a community.”
In Pennsylvania, 97-percent of all fire companies depend either entirely or mostly on volunteers. Nationally, 87-percent of fire departments are exclusively or largely volunteer, according to the 2012 National Fire Department Census conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Under the Employer Mandate Provision of Obamacare, employers with 50 or more employees must provide health insurance or pay penalties. If volunteers were ever considered employees, fire companies could exceed the 50 employee threshold in several different ways: a volunteer department by itself based on size; by being part of a combined, paid-volunteer firefighter department; or by being part of a municipality that has 50 or more public employees in total.
“There is no way that fire companies could absorb the enormous cost of providing health care to their volunteers, who presumably have other jobs or receive their health care from another source,” Barletta said. “It is just another unintended consequence of a very bad law.”
Barletta was first alerted to the issue during a parade in the 11th District by Robert Timko, a volunteer firefighter for the Fairview Township Fire Company, who also serves as Pennsylvania’s Alternate Director for the National Volunteer Fire Council. Barletta then sent a letter to the IRS seeking the clarification regarding volunteer firefighters and their status under the Employer Mandate Provision contained in Obamacare, in which he wrote:
“Forcing volunteer fire companies to comply with the Shared Responsibility Provision will not extend health insurance to the uninsured – rather it will close firehouses and place communities at risk. Furthermore, subjecting volunteer fire companies to the Shared Responsibility Provision may force them to eliminate volunteers in order to avoid classification as a large employer.”
“I don’t trust the IRS today or in the future, especially when it comes to public safety, and that’s why we are making this the law,” Barletta said. “Volunteer firefighters are just that – volunteers, and should not be subjected to the Employer Mandate. It’s just common sense.”
When introduced in the last Congress, Barletta’s legislation was supported by organizations such as the National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Congressional Fire Services Institute, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Towns and Townships, the National Association of EMTs, and the National Association of State EMS Officials. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives also unanimously endorsed the proposal.