The agency faced the possibility of providing health insurance to its volunteers

by: JASON CHANEY - The agency faced the possibility of providing health insurance to its volunteers.

Crook County Fire and Rescue leaders were given some good news on Friday.

After facing the possibility of having to provide health insurance to volunteer firefighters as part of the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a clarification of the law that has likely eliminated the requirement.

The health care bill includes a mandate that requires employers to count employees that work 30 hours or more per week as full time. Consequently, it was believed that CCFR would be forced to provide health insurance to volunteers who worked 30 or more hours per week or face a financial penalty.

Crook County Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Smith initially learned about the mandate about a year and a half ago. Since that time, he had trying to position the department in the best way to eliminate the impact.

"Would we be able to afford health insurance? No," Smith said.

At the same time, downsizing their volunteer force, or going without them entirely, was not an option either.

"Without our volunteers, we can't answer the volume of call we have."

Therefore, CCFR leaders were trying to find the best way to structure staff hours and classify volunteer positions. Smith explained that the traditional volunteer is less common these days and that volunteer incentive programs have changed the way volunteer firefighters are labeled.

“We have part-time employees, which is really our choice of a volunteer incentive program,” Smith said. “We just created part-time employees and treat them (volunteers) that way.”

He was unsure whether that incentive program would require CCFR to provide health insurance to volunteers or not.

While CCFR was trying to account for the perceived requirement, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and other lawmakers co-sponsored a bill to exempt firefighters and emergency medical technicians from the requirement.

“Volunteer firefighters and emergency responders serve their communities every day to protect lives and property and keep neighborhoods safe,” Walden said. “Their units shouldn’t be forced to choose between buying life-saving equipment and complying with IRS mandates under the new health care law.”

H.R. 3685 was introduced on Dec. 10, but has since seen no further action.

As it turns out, the path to the eventual treasury department clarification originated in December 2012, when the department and the IRS issued proposed regulations on the employer shared responsibility provision. They invited public input and received numerous comments from fire departments that rely on volunteers as well as many members of Congress.

The treasury department and IRS subsequently reviewed the comments, as well as the tax code and rules regarding the treatment of volunteers under federal wage laws.

“As a result of that review and analysis, the forthcoming final regulations relating to employer shared responsibility generally will not require volunteer hours of bona fide volunteer firefighters and volunteer emergency medical personnel at governmental or tax-exempt organizations to be counted when determining full-time employees (or full-time equivalents),” said Mark J. Mazur, the treasury department’s assistant secretary for tax policy.

The clarification said that the final regulations will be issued shortly to provide timely guidance for the volunteer emergency responder community. For Smith, it is a welcome development, although he still intends to keep an eye on how the rules develop.

“I’m still concerned because these rules have changed so often, but, it is nice that they clarified this,” he said. “We’ll still be standing on the sidelines making sure we are paying attention to what's going on.”

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