Reform law a hurdle for volunteer firefighting

Volunteer firefighter and EMS companies throughout the country and here at home are at severe risk of going extinct if they don’t become exempt to the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate set to go into effect in 2015.

Because the law does not distinguish between volunteers and paid employees, volunteer firefighter and EMS companies will be forced to provide health insurance or pay a fine.

This threatens to dismantle volunteer fire companies, as 71 percent of fire departments in the nation are staffed by volunteers – and Pennsylvania has the largest number of volunteer fire departments in the nation numbering over 2,000 or 97 percent, according to state Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Zionsville.

“This would be the nail in the coffin to operating volunteer fire companies,” Baker said. He added volunteer companies provide more than $6 billion worth of services.

The mandate would apply to those with more than 50 employees, but fire companies could exceed that threshold in several ways: by themselves based on their size; by being part of a larger combined force under several different chiefs; or by being part of a municipality that has 50 or more public employees, said U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Howard.

Thomas G. Schaech, officer with the Muncy Township Volunteer Fire Co. and vice chair of Muncy Township supervisors, said the fire company has about 80 volunteers, and when he calculated the mandate’s cost, he found it would cost about $605,000 a year for insurance.

The fire company certainly can’t afford that or the ensuing fine, and so would have to look to the township for help. However, the board of supervisors’ budget is $600,000.

“It would wipe us out,” Schaech said as supervisor.

To afford that, the supervisors would have to raise taxes more than 2.5 times what they are now. “I don’t want to burden the taxpayers, because many of them are retired on fixed incomes,” Schaech said.

The volunteer firefighters’ doors would close, he said.

The supervisors wrote a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, informing him of these great consequences, and are urging their Congressmen to act.

“The folks in Washington need to get off their duff,” Schaech said. “We need to cut through all the mustard and get down to the major issue. … We’re on top of this – they need to be on top of this.”

The state House this week passed a resolution 198-0 urging Congress to exempt volunteer firefighters, rescue and EMS companies from the mandate.

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, expressed the importance of the measure.

“I think the resolution is a reflection of all our understanding in Harrisburg of what volunteer fire companies are to small towns in rural Pennsylvania. This will virtually put them out of business, and we can’t have them go out of business,” Everett said.

State Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven, said the mandate shouldn’t apply to volunteers.

“Volunteer firefighters provide a valuable service to communities throughout Pennsylvania, but they are not ’employed’ by any organization.

“It is my understanding they do not fall under the mandated employer guidelines for providing health care through the federal Affordable Care Act. Adopting this resolution encourages Congress to address this important issue,” Hanna said.

U.S. Rep. Thomas A. Marino, R-Cogan Station, is co-sponsoring the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which would exempt volunteer firefighter and EMS companies. The legislation is in committee and hasn’t come up for a vote.

The issue hits close to home for Marino as his father was a 30-year firefighter.

Marino said he will let them happen “over my dead body. With every fiber of my body, I will do everything I can to eliminate this ridiculous, unscrupulous piece of law.”

As a 30-year volunteer firefighter, EMT and state-certified rescue technician, Thompson also is committed to pushing this bill forward.

“This bill is about providing certainty to our local volunteer organizations and standing up for those who put their lives on the line protecting our communities,” Thompson said.

In September, bill sponsor U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, sent a letter to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Daniel Werfel seeking clarification for volunteer fire companies, but the IRS has not responded to the letter.

As member of the Finance Committee, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, has oversight over the IRS, and the committee will confirm its next commissioner. Casey said he has secured a commitment from IRS commissioner nominee John Andrew Koskinen these concerns will be quickly addressed.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, did not respond by press time.