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Volunteer fire companies breathe easier after receiving Obamacare exemption

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 5:51 p.m.
The number of volunteer firefighters have declined over the years.

Butler Township Manager Ed Kirkwood said he is glad that the federal government came to its senses, exempting volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel from the Affordable Care Act that otherwise could have doubled his municipality's property taxes.

“It was absolutely ludicrous,” Kirkwood said of the mandate that would have forcedmunicipalities to provide health care insurance to volunteer emergency responders.

“There are volunteers in hospitals. There are volunteers in the Veterans Administration. There are volunteers in nursing homes. There are volunteers for the libraries. There are volunteers for youth sports. Why weren't they included?”

Under the law, beginning in 2015, employers with 50 or more workers must offer health coverage to all employees who work 30 or more hours a week. IRS regulations written before the 2010 passage of the law labeled volunteer firefighters and other emergency personnel as employees, even if they weren't paid or only nominally compensated.

Though many volunteer fire companies are small and wouldn't have met the 50-employee threshold, some larger communities have much larger volunteer forces. Butler has about 130 volunteers.

Critics warned that requiring the insurance could financially devastate local departments and wreck municipality budgets, as many include contributions to their local departments.

Kirkwood said his township would have been forced to spend more than $2 million to buy health insurance for emergency responders. He said he urged legislators to intervene.

“I told them to get on board, whatever influence you have,” Kirkwood said. “I need help on this one, guys.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey spearheaded bipartisan legislation to exempt emergency responders.

In a Jan. 10 letter to Toomey, Alastair M. Fitzpayne, assistant secretary for legislative affairs for the Department of the Treasury, said, “We want to assure you that we share your concern that emergency volunteer service be accorded appropriate treatment.”

Fire departments already are required to carry workers' compensation insurance for volunteers. Some municipalities also buy supplemental insurance that pays for some medical care through Provident Agency in O'Hara, Kirkwood said.

Other Butler County municipalities said the proposed mandate wasn't a point of concern.

Cranberry manager Jerry Andree said his municipality hadn't calculated how much it could have cost, because he didn't see it becoming a reality.

“We did not go into panic mode,” he said. “We knew that wasn't the intent of the Affordable Care Act.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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