Count volunteer fire deparments among the Obamacare-victimized.
Rules governing the health-care reform law championed by President Obama could inadvertently suck in volunteer firefighting companies, meaning the departments or the towns that support them might be forced to offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don't.
According to Firehouse.com, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has asked the Internal Revenue Service, which has partial oversight of the law, to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means they fall under Obamacare rules.
Though the IAFC has been working on the issue with the IRS and White House for months, the question is largely flying under the radar.
"I thought the kinks were worked out of Obamacare at the first of the month," Central Florida volunteer firefighter Carl Fabrizi told Sunshine State News Friday. "Man, oh, man, this could potentially destroy some real good companies in Florida."
Republican Congressman Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania is pushing to get clarification from the IRS. "In Pennsylvania, 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly volunteer firefighters," Barletta told Firehouse.com. "It's the fourth highest amount in the country."
Spokesmen for the IRS didn't return Firehouse.com's phone call, nor did they return SSN's.
Firehouse.com claims the IAFC's interpretation of the situation goes like this:
Obamacare requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees (full-time employees are those who work more than 30 hours a week) to offer health insurance. Companies with fewer than 50 don't have to offer insurance. Employers who don't offer health insurance have to pay fines.
Sounds simple, but the requirement is complicated by differing interpretations about the status of volunteer firefighters within the federal government. Apparently the Department of Labor classifies most volunteers as non-employees, but the IRS considers all volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of their departments.
On its website, the IAFC says, "If the IRS classifies volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel as employees in their final rule, fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely."
Barletta fears the IRS will count volunteer hose companies as one department in towns with more than one hose company, or as part of a town's workforce. Definitions like that could push the total numbers beyond the 50-employee threshold and require offering coverage that towns or hose companies can't afford, he said. The IRS must also define what sort of volunteer duty counts toward the 30-hour-a-week limit.
Barletta wrote a letter urging the IRS to write a rule that labels volunteer firefighters as non-employees.
"There needs to be clarification because this could be serious," he said. "That's all we're looking at and that we haven't heard anything concerns me."
Bruce Moeller, head of safety and emergency services for Pinellas County, is also chairman of a task force for the fire chiefs group. Moeller said the problem cropped up because the IRS already considers volunteers as employees and requires all departments to issue W-2 forms for any sort of compensation for volunteers. He's sure Congress did not intend to require volunteer fire departments to offer health insurance when it passed the health law.
"Welcome to federal regulations," he said. "It's one of those quirks."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.