AUGUSTA, Maine - Fire departments won't have to provide coverage to volunteer firefighters under the federal health care law, the U.S. Department of Treasury said Friday, easing concerns that the overhaul would force departments to slash volunteer hours or benefits.
Volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders won't be counted as full-time employees under the Affordable Care Act when the department releases its final regulations shortly, Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for Tax Policy, wrote in a blog post on the department's website.
David Finger, director of government relations at the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the organization is pleased with the decision.
"It seems like this is going to settle everything to our satisfaction, but we'll pay close attention to the final regulations and if there is any issue then we'll raise it at that point," he said. "It's a good day."
Firefighter organizations and chiefs throughout the country have been calling on the federal government to ensure they're exempt from the law, which requires employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week to provide health insurance for them.
Volunteer firefighters have been considered employees for tax purposes because they're often offered such incentives as stipends, retirement benefits and gym memberships. Many rural towns throughout the country rely on volunteers in departments to cut down on costs in between fires and emergency calls.
Faced with the prospect of paying for insurance or being fined if they fail to provide it, departments were worried they'd have to reduce the number of hours that firefighters can volunteer or eliminate the benefit programs.
Mazur said the Treasury Department has received numerous comments and concerns on the issue from members of local fire and Emergency Medical Service departments as well as members of Congress. The final regulations will provide timely guidance to the volunteer firefighter community, he wrote.
"We think this guidance strikes the appropriate balance in the treatment provided to traditional full-time emergency responder employees, bona fide volunteers, and to our Nation's first responder units, many of which rely heavily on volunteers," he wrote.
Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, said the issue was clearly overlooked when the federal health care law was written.
"Once it was brought to the attention of Treasury officials ... they started receiving letters from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and started seeing interviews on the news about this unintended consequence, I think they realized that they might have made a mistake here."
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