Bills Might Rescue Volunteer Emergency Responders From ACA

December 12, 2013       Patrick Sullivan      

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) has some volunteer emergency responders smoldering with concern.

Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are considered employees for tax purposes. But with the ACA’s employer shared responsibility mandate, which requires entities with more than 50 employees who work more than 30 hours a week to provide health insurance to their employees, volunteer fire companies and emergency medical services (EMS) are left wondering if that applies to them.

“The cost would be extremely burdensome,” said Bruce Moeller, Ph.D., chairman of the ACA task force for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), based in Fairfax, Va. “It was probably not the intent of the legislation to pull in volunteer responders but we do not have clear definition.”

An Internal Revenue Service (IRS) spokesperson referred inquiries into the status of volunteer first responders to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which did not respond to requests for comment.

“We sent the IRS a letter in September asking they issue clarifying regulations and we haven’t received a lot of feedback,” said David Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) in Greenbelt, Md. “The big concern is not just that they won’t grant an exemption but that they won’t issue sufficient detail. I can see departments taking action, reducing volunteers or hours. The longer we go (without regulations), the more our folks start to worry.”

Finger said a handful of NVFC’s members have cut hours. “We’re telling members to be aware of the situation, to contact their representatives in Congress, but don’t panic, don’t take drastic action right now,” he said. “We think whether working with the IRS or getting Congress to pass legislation, we’ll figure this out before 2015” when fines will be levied against organizations that do not comply.

Bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this week. The bills, both named the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, carve out an exemption to the employer shared responsibility mandate for volunteer firefighters and EMTs. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) introduced the bill in the House, and Marc Warner (D-Va.) introduced it in the Senate.

Pam Lane, executive director of the National Association of EMTs (NAEMT) in Clinton, Miss., said her board will vote on Friday whether to actively support the legislation, and she predicts it will. She estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of NAEMT’s members would be affected by regulations requiring insurance for volunteers. “Even if you look at paid services, they supplement with volunteers,” she said.

Finger said that a lot of volunteer fire companies don’t have 50 volunteers. The most likely companies to be affected would be combination departments — those with paid staff and volunteers — and municipal companies, where the firefighters might be lumped together with all other municipal employees for the purposes of the employer shared responsibility provision. It’s the uncertainty at this point that makes volunteers apprehensive. “We don’t know how many (would be affected) because we don’t have final implementation regulations by the IRS,” he said.

Moeller said a surprising number of volunteer responders put in more than 30 hours per week. “There are a lot of people who have a strong desire to serve their communities,” he said. “They’re very dedicated and it’s not unusual to see them doing more than 30 hours per week.”

Finger, Moeller and Lane all said they are optimistic that volunteer fire departments and EMSs will be exempt from the shared responsibility mandate, whether through legislation or IRS regulations. “Nobody we’ve talked to said they think fire departments should be providing volunteers with insurance,” said Finger. “It’s just a question of how to avoid it. The PPACA is a hugely divisive issue and it’s hard to get legislation to move on it. But there is bipartisan support for this issue and we feel it’s something that’s going to get done.”