Obamacare will burn things to the ground

Or so say the headlines that have been making the rounds in the right-wing media the last few days, and are now blowing up my Facebook feed.

“‘A Public Safety Disaster’: ObamaCare Could Force THOUSANDS of Volunteer Fire Departments to Close”

“Coming Soon: Obamacare Burns Down Volunteer Fire Departments”

“Rep. Barletta: Obamacare Could Extinguish Volunteer Firefighters”

“Obamacare Rules Threaten to Torch Volunteer Fire Departments”

Modern journalism is so easy, the puns write themselves!

Anyway, all of the usual suspects are carrying the torch – Fox News, Free Republic, Washington Times, Daily Mail, InfoWars, American Thinker, Red State. If you’re a conservative and you haven’t had your head in a hole since Friday, I’m guessing you’re outraged.

The issue, shockingly, is legitimate, as I discovered that an organization known as the International Association of Fire Chiefs ran an article back in July (targeted towards, I’m guessing, Fire Chiefs) about the potential issue of how volunteers will count under the PPACA. For IRS purposes, they typically count as employees, but the department of labor treats volunteers as their own category. In September, they reported that they’d asked the IRS for clarification, which seems like an entirely reasonable request. They were joined by the National Volunteer Fire Council around the same time. Nearest I can tell, they’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer in the last 3 months.

This current media blitz appears to be spearheaded by Rep. Lou Barletta (R, Pa), who postedthis rundown of the facts on his webpage last week. While there’s some partisan language in there and some needless slams on Obamacare, it seems that his intention is to get the IRS to answer a question that they were asked months ago, probably at the urging of his constituents. For fire departments that may be affected by this legislation come 1 January 2015, this is probably important.

So what says the dope? Legitimate use of the media, or blatant political grandstanding? I’m tentatively thinking the former.

You did that on purpose, didn’t you ? Consider yourself fired.


I’m not particularly aware of how volunteer fire services work. Anyone care to explain that particular quandary to non-American readers?

IANAVFF, but Wiki has a page about them.

So they are part-timer volunteers, but unlike interns or normal non-profit volunteer, they do typically get paid when they’re responding to a call. The IAFC asked for clarifications on, among other things, if “on call” and/or unpaid training hours counted when determining if volunteer fire fighters were full time employees.

How many volunteer fire departments have more than 50 volunteers?

Some volunteer firefighters are paid while responding. Some are not.
Emphasizing the part of the Wikipedia post cited by steronz above… there is a positive side to having volunteer firefighters be considered employees in certain circumstances - access to worker’s compensation insurance in the event of an injury while responding to an emergency. That is so even if the volunteer FF is not otherwise compensated for service.

With the requirements under PPACA, there is now a potential downside to considering such persons as employees.

The issue now is what qualifies as “work” for the purposes of the 30 hour mandate under PPACA. The US Department of Labor makes determination on a case-by-case basis paying attention to whether the individual may leave the employer’s premises and whether the person can make effective use of his free time for his/her own purposes.

A volunteer FF may carry a pager and be free to leave the station, but if complying with the on-call response requirement significantly impair his ability to freely use his free time then he is considered to be working. The US DOL provides the example, “For example, if he or she is unable to finish a meal, read a story to his or her child or read a newspaper during the same on-call period, he or she probably cannot use the time effectively for his or her own purposes.”

Considering the nature of emergency response, where you are expected to immediately drop everything and respond, most volunteer FFs would be considered to be working the entire time their carry an on-call pager making it very easy to hit 30 hours per week.

For what it’s worth, the IAFC has released a fact sheet that seems to answer some of their own questions (this may have been updated since September).

But I can’t figure out their footnotes. The manual they cite seems to be from 2009. The more I read Rep Barletta’s list of grievances the less I’m impressed. A lot of the doom-and-gloom scenarios he fears have already been addressed.

How much would it cost an employer to provide insurance for 50 employees?

I have a hard time believing that many volunteer fire fighters are on duty more than 30 hours a week.

Even if it is a real problem, in a normal world congress would simply amend the law to fix it. It’s only where one party is absolutely committed to nothing short of obstruction and repeal that this could become a huge disaster. So, my call is “blatant political grandstanding.”

$269,200 per year, using the Kaiser Family Foundation’s US average of $5384 per employee in 2012. There is wide variance from state to state. Premiums may be higher since that time.

Presumably some of these firefighters would already have coverage from a full time job. In that case the VFD still has new administrative burdens in keeping track of who has qualifying coverage elsewhere and who doesn’t.

As a comparison, $269K would be about a double the annual budget of our old VFD.

Thanks for the info.

Out of curiousity, how many people were a part of your old VFD?

So things burn to the ground, TBH, I was afraid it was going to have to come to this.

Just make sure that when they rebuild, it’s with single-payer.

Apparently, they rely on unpaid, uninsured volunteers to fight fires. It’s cheaper that way.

So they’d be getting hosed, then?

Did you read any of the links? The issue is how to deal with someone “on call”.

So, you have evidence that one party has obstructed a change in this provision? Can we see that evidence?

Back when I was active (more than 15 years ago) we had around 120 active members. A core group of maybe 50 were very active - the ones you could easily get to agree to be on call 2-3 nights per week.

We required a minimum of 12 hours per month of duty at the station to maintain membership. During the day there were typically 4 or so members at the station at any given time. At night it might just be one who would have to send a page to the on-call members to respond to any incidents.

Since that time the area has continued to grow and they added a second station to the department. Hopefully membership roles have expanded to keep up.

PPACA counts workers at multiple sites within a local area to determine if a business has 50 workers. So if a fast food franchisee owns 8 restaurants in a metro area and if there are 50 full time workers in total between all the locations then the employer is required to provide insurance under the mandate. That mandate applies even if the franchisee owns different brands of restaurants (e.g. 3 Subways, 2 Pizza Huts, and 3 KFC’s all owned under Mr Moneybags Fast Food, Inc.)

Similarly, some volunteer fire departments have multiple station houses so the membership across multiple station houses counts toward the 50 worker limit.

And some larger areas may be served by various VFD’s under different names but which are legally organized under one legal entity. (Smalltown VFD, Elm City VFD, and South Side Community VFD might legally all be organized under one entity, the Smith County VFD Association). Much like the fast food franchisee, membership across all the constituent departments of such an organization would count toward the 50 worker limit under PPACA.

Based on the math outlined in the IAFC fact sheet I posted above, the average employee in your department would have had to have worked 50 hours per month in order for the department to have been considered a “large employer.” 120 employees at 50 hours a month is 6000 hours, or 200 hours a day. If we generously count the “day” as a 16 hour shift, your department worked 72 man-hours a day, well short of the 200 that would qualify them as a large employer.

Doubling the rolls to 240 volunteers doesn’t substantially change the math, except we can assume there’d be twice as many people in the station at a given time. That brings the daily man-hours up to 144, still short. Somewhere around 350 volunteers we’d tip over the edge, but at that point the IRS is combining the working hours of 7 individuals in order to add up to 1 full time employee for PPACA purposes. I have no idea if that’s realistic.

I’m also assuming that there’s some administrative and management staff at these departments that are legitimately full-time employees. I don’t know the ratio of volunteers to full timers, but if a department has 350 volunteers, they may very well have enough full time employees to qualify as a large employer without putting 7 volunteer firefighters in a giant trench coat and passing them off as one employee.

Feel free to check my math, but I suspect that there’s not actually a lot of departments that would be affected by this. It’s worth answering, and if the IRS has been ignoring the request for information from these trade groups for 3 months that’s certainly shameful, but I don’t think this is all that worrisome.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but even a “large employer” isn’t obligated to offer health insurance to its part time employees, so if a department had 350 volunteers that all added up to 50 full-time *equivalent *people, but no real full time people, it would have to offer health insurance to nobody and it wouldn’t cost them anything.

Are you *really *trying to imply that the GOP hasn’t committed itself to exacerbating every potential problem with the ACA, and that it hasn’t attempted multiple times to repeal it as a whole?

There is no rule or statute that prohibits you from calling non-employees employees, or treating them as such for specific purposes. All anyone cares about is when you try to define employees as non-employees. An employer must provide workers’ compensation coverage (depending on the jurisdiction) for its employees, but nothing stops them from covering non-employees.