The Affordable Care Act’s health insurance mandate requires any employer with more than 50 employees to offer health insurance to its workers. While the negative impact on small businesses is well known, a more sinister side effect of the implemented plan is just surfacing – the potential end to volunteer firefighters.
According to the AP, volunteer firefighter groups across the country often list their volunteers as employees for tax purposes, even when they are not paid. The job may not offer a salary, but it often offers perks like using the firehouse gym or contributing to a retirement plan. It’s the most that many of these organizations can do to incentivize individuals to work as firefighters in places where the state’s firefighter forces may not be enough to keep residents safe.
Now groups that can’t afford to pay for salaries for their volunteers might be expected to buy them all health insurance. Due to the nature of the trade, it is feasible that many volunteers go in and out of the league, raising the number on duty at any given time artificially for government purposes. If the firefighter leagues cannot pay for health insurance for volunteers, they will be forced to close down. There is no exception written into the Obamacare legislation for volunteer groups permitted to list volunteers on their taxes.
In the small New Jersey town of Middletown, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger called the potential impact on his volunteer firefighter league and emergency medical services volunteers “tragic” and “a disaster” at a community meeting. The town currently has no way of knowing just how much the mandate will affect the groups, but should the federal government fine them for not providing volunteers insurance, they may have to shut down essential emergency services. In Pennsylvania, Congressman Lou Barletta is lobbying for clarification from the IRS in the hopes of saving his state’s emergency services. That state’s Fire Commissioner, Edward Mann, has outright said his state could “not afford” such a mandate whatsoever. Similarly, in Grand Traverse, Michigan, firefighters have resolved to try to “do more with less” at fires but give no guarantee that they will be able to serve.
New Jersey legislators are working to carve out an exception to protect these services, though whether they have the power to do so without the federal government’s intervention is up in the air given the unique nature of this law. On a larger scale, the International Association of Fire Chiefs is lobbying the IRS for answers as well. With the ACA in effect for six days and complete silence from the federal government, the odds that many of these emergency services can be saved dwindle every day.