March 12--A bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, that spares fire companies and other emergency services from providing health insurance to volunteers passed unanimously during a vote on Tuesday.
A total of 410 representatives voted for the bill that exempts volunteer fire companies from the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act while 20 House members were absent for the vote.
The act, dubbed Obamacare, requires companies with 50 or more employees to insure employees or pay fines, and the Internal Revenue Service once regarded volunteer firefighters as employees.
Barletta realized that many fire companies couldn't afford to buy health insurance for their volunteers.
"This would close firehouses around the country. They're doing fundraising for basic gear and equipment," he said before the debate about the bill began.
He learned about the problem that the Affordable Care Act presented to volunteer fire companies while talking to a firefighter before the start of a parade in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, last September.
While they waited for the parade, firefighter Robert Timko of the Fairview Township Fire Company in York County told Barletta that the IRS classified volunteers as employees.
While Timko serves on a fire company that has a budget of approximately $500,000, he wondered how the ruling would affect smaller fire companies.
"I'm blessed to be on the National Volunteer Fire Council. My job is to think about the guys on the street and how to help them," Timko said in a telephone interview before the vote.
After speaking with Timko at the parade, Barletta did some research, learned that Timko was right and wrote to the IRS.
The National Volunteer Fire Council on which Timko serves as Pennsylvania's alternate director and two other national firefighting organizations wrote to the IRS a few days before Timko spoke to Barletta.
Neither letter drew a reply at first so Barletta began drafting a bill to exempt volunteer fire companies from the provision of Obamacare.
As colleagues asked to become co-sponsors, Barletta, who previously passed bills to name a post office and to reduce rates on government loans to victims of disasters, realized the firefighters' bill had support.
He widened that support by writing letters to colleagues and pointing out that nationally 86 percent of fire companies depend on volunteers. The percentage is higher, at 94 percent, in Pennsylvania, he said.
Meanwhile, the IRS wrote back to Barletta on Jan. 10. The agency said its regulations generally will not consider volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of governmental and tax-exempt organizations.
Barletta applauded the regulations but persisted in trying to pass his bill.
"It's too much of a public safety issue to be left to federal bureaucrats," he said on the House floor during the debate.
The bill needed extra support, Barletta said, because Republican leadership in the House has hesitated to bring any bill altering Obamacare to a vote.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee supported the bill unanimously.
On Tuesday, Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan also spoke for the bill.
Levin said 70 percent of the firefighters in the nation are volunteers, and they provide services worth more than $140 billion.
"It's important for the congress to join the administration in recognizing that first responders are absolutely critical to safety of the country," Levin said.
Without the change solidified by the bill, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said Butler Township, Butler County, would have to double taxes to insure firefighters or forego fire protection.
Because the bill came to a vote during a suspension of the rules, two-thirds of the House members had to approve to pass it.
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