Insurance mandate unlikely for firefighters

LISBON – Could the Affordable Care Act require health insurance be offered to volunteer firefighters? Even if so, it appears unlikely any communities in Columbiana County would be affected.

Earlier this month, other news outlets ran stories saying the Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare, could require health insurance coverage be offered to volunteer firefighters based on a previous Internal Revenue Service ruling.

Under Obamacare, businesses and government agencies with the equivalent of 50 or more full-time employees must provide their workers with health insurance coverage or pay a fine.

The IRS is responsible for determining which employers must offer coverage under Obamacare, and the IRS has long considered volunteer firefighters as employees for tax purposes.

Some small communities with a large number of volunteer firefighters are concerned this would push them over the 50 full-time employee threshold, forcing townships, cities and village councils to offer health insurance. Under the scenario, other communities already with 50-plus municipal employees would have to extend health insurance coverage if served by volunteer firefighters.

The key appears to be an Obamacare provision that defines a full-time employee as anyone working more than 29 hours per week on average over the course of a year. It is unlikely any volunteer firefighter in the county comes close to being called into service that many hours per week.

An example is Lisbon’s fire department, which also provides fire protection services to Center and Elkrun townships. While considered volunteers, the firefighters are paid minimum wage when responding to a fire call.

Lisbon Fiscal Officer Tracey Wonner recently paid 25 firefighters for responding to six months’ worth of calls, and the bill covered a combined 1,300 hours. That comes out to an average of 52 hours worked per firefighter over six months. That averages out to less than three hours a week per firefighter.

Wonner said Fire Chief David Lewton, who responds to almost every fire, accumulated the most hours over that six-month period- 114 hours. To qualify for health insurance under the Obamacare scenario, Lewton would have had to work 754 hours over that period.

“It would be very, very unlikely for a volunteer fire department to fall under this,” she said.

What about the cities with more than 50 full-time employees? East Liverpool and Salem probably fall into that category, but both have full-time fire departments where the firefighters are already covered by health insurance.

The city of Columbiana, with 55 full-time employees, has 24 volunteer firefighters who are paid on a per call basis like Lisbon. Columbiana Fire Chief Rick Garrity said there is no way any of his firefighters come close to working 29 hours per week over the course of a year needed to qualify for health coverage under Obamacare.

“Once in a great while you might have a 10-hour week,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it would affect us, and I don’t know anyone in this county that would be affected.”

The IRS has until 2015 to complete writing the final regulations for the employer mandate and could still exempt volunteer firefighters, but bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would accomplish the same thing.