Barletta Reintroduces Bill to Protect Firefighters and Emergency Workers
Barletta Visiting the Back Mountain Regional Fire & EMS Company.
WASHINGTON – Congressman Lou Barletta (PA-11) recently introduced legislation – for the fifth time – to protect volunteer firefighters and emergency responders from the unintended consequences of Obamacare. Barletta’s bill, the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, H.R. 1991, 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 shut down. Due to Barletta’s efforts, in 2014 the IRS issued a ruling that exempted volunteer firefighters and emergency responders from the Employer Mandate. Barletta has continued to fight to give first responders the certainty of a change in the law, ushering his bill through the House three times by a combined vote of 1,226-0.
“This is just another example of how Obamacare has failed our residents and added unnecessary financial burdens on our local communities,” Barletta said. “Our volunteer firefighters have a hard enough time raising money needed for basic equipment. There is no way that they 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. It’s just another unintended consequence of a very bad law.”
Barletta’s bill is part of Congress’ ongoing efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. The House passed Barletta’s first three bills by similar unanimous votes – first by 410-to-0 in March of 2014, then by 401-to-0 in January 2015, and finally by 415-to-0 in March 2016. Each time the House passed the bill, it failed because the Senate stripped the language or added unrelated text. Last Congress, the bill died in the House Ways and Means Committee.
“Public safety is too important to leave to the whims of unelected bureaucrats in Washington,” Barletta said. “As it currently stands, the IRS could change its policy, which would strike a damaging blow to public safety. This bill would give volunteer fire departments and local municipalities the certainty of law that they are not stuck with the choice between paying costly fines and shutting down.”
History of the Bill
Barletta was first alerted to the issue in 2013 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 Delegate to 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.”
In 2014, after 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.
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.