Will Obamacare impact fire service?

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Willis says county facing ‘real nightmare scenario’ due to requirements of Affordable Care Act

By Chris Sardelli

What would happen if a blaze tore through a Lancaster County home and there were no volunteer firefighters available to help?

It sounds drastic, but it’s just one of several “nightmare” scenarios county officials are considering in response to a side-effect of the country’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

County Administrator Steve Willis said he and other county staff have been on high alert since October, after being notified about the potential problem from the National Association of Counties (NACO). 

“There’s a 2007 IRS regulation that covers volunteer firefighters and how they can be sometimes considered as employees (of the county),” Willis said. “Under the Affordable Care Act we could conceivably have to provide health care for them.” 

In the NACO report, the organization warns that under the ACA’s “Shared Responsibility Provision” large employers are required to offer health insurance to their employees. Large employers are defined in the ACA as those with 50 or more full-time employees who work 30 or more hours a week. 

Under the IRS regulation, this could mean either large costs or stiff penalties for counties as they sort out who is considered an employee. 

In response, the International Association of Fire Chiefs petitioned the IRS for an exemption for volunteer firefighter and emergency personnel, and a “legislative fix” has already been crafted and approved by the House of Representatives. 

“It’s gone through the House, but with the Senate, who knows how long it could take? We’re worried about what could happen,” Willis said. 

Chief among officials’ concerns are the costs the county could be required to pay if the legislative fix is not approved. 

“We have 300 volunteer firefighters. If we had to provide for all of them and council said ‘nah, let’s take the penalty,’ then the county would have to pay $2,000 per person per year. That equals $600,000 per year we’d have to pay,” he said. “On the flip side, if every volunteer decided they wanted the full insurance, and had spouses and families with them, it could cost $3.3 million to insure them.”

Another concern that could arise is whether a volunteer has another employer responsible for providing the health insurance. Also, are “on-call” hours considered work and do they count toward the 30-hour ACA requirement for full-timers?

In reviewing the ACA and its many provisions, Willis said there is a potential escape clause for the county, though it also has repercussions. 

“We’ve got an out and could say they’re not county employees because we didn’t create them. They are all independent 501(c)(3) groups. And no fire department has more than 50 firefighters,” he said. “My concern is if we do that, the government will say we can’t provide them workers’ comp (compensation) coverage. We do that now, but if we take a hands-off approach, we can’t provide worker’s comp either. 

“It’s a real nightmare scenario. What if all the volunteer firefighters say I’m outta here because there’s no workman’s comp? Now we’d have to put paid firefighters at each of our stations. That could cost $30 million. That’s our entire general fund budget,” Willis said. 

For fiscal year 2013-14, the county’s general fund budget was $38.6 million. 

“But we can’t live without our firefighters. They’re the backbone of the fire service. These are folks you want to look after and this health insurance thing may put us in a difficult position,” he said. 

As for that fix making its way through Congress, Willis said it would amend federal code to say that volunteer firefighters are not county employees, thus overriding the IRS regulation.

But with so much squabbling within Congress about the national budget, Willis is not confident the issue will be taken up before the end of the year. 

“They’re fighting so much that once they get the budget done, they’re probably going home for Christmas. So, we don’t know when they’ll look at it,” he said. “We hope the legislative fix will be put through and then we can say we dodged a bullet, but if we don’t do the legislative fix, there will be no good outcome.”

‘Unintended causes’

The pending problem is also on the radar of U.S. House District 5 Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who represents Lancaster County. 

“It’s another one of those unintended causes of the healthcare bill and it’s what you get when you pass a bill that nobody reads,” Mulvaney said Wednesday night, Dec. 18. 

“The way the law is implemented, if a volunteer firefighter works more than 30 hours a week, then the county has to pay for their healthcare.”

Though he opposes the potential provision, Mulvaney said he was not surprised to hear of such a consequence. 

“You’ll hear more and more and more things about this healthcare bill,” he said. 

Mulvaney said he is currently tracking the progress of the bill to exempt volunteer firefighters from the ACA provision, but said Congress’ first priority will be the federal budget. 

He said it’s vital Congress approve the exemption or else counties could be facing millions of dollars in unexpected costs, not to mention the risk of losing dedicated volunteers. 

“Nobody wants this to happen and I’m hopeful it will pass both Houses,” he said. “No one wants counties like Lancaster County to lose their volunteer fire service.”

For Morris Russell, Lancaster County’s Fire Service Director, the provision has placed the county in a possibly un-winnable situation. 

“We’re forced to do what the Affordable Care Act tells us to do. But county taxpayers can’t afford this and the volunteer firefighters haven’t asked for it,” Russell said. “I’m sure some would need it, but not all of them.” 

With no clearcut answer on the horizon, Russell said the members of the county’s fire service have discussed a myriad of scenarios, from the costs of paying penalties to the funds needed to provide benefits to all volunteers.

“These costs could double the county’s taxes,” he said.

Though things could get messy if the county could no longer offer workers’ compensation, Russell doesn’t believe all volunteers would simply walk away.

“I don’t see any of the volunteers going home,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how something like this was put together on the national stage.”

He said the county’s fire officials have been working closely with the S.C. State Firefighters’ Association to figure out how it could affect local volunteers. 

“I don’t have an answer and I don’t think County Council has an answer. The problem is we have no idea. It needs to be studied and it wasn’t studied enough to make sure everything was covered,” Russell said. “We don’t even know the repercussions of the fix. I mean, this doesn’t just affect the volunteer firefighters. It affects volunteers with EMS and reserve officers with police departments, anyone who works more than 30 hours a week.”


Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416