House solidifies Obamacare exemption for VFDs

WHEELING – A unanimous House of Representatives voted to solidify into law a previously announced decree by President Barack Obama that exempts volunteer fire departments from the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate.

After hearing concern from volunteer units, many of which serve rural areas where no paid fire departments exist, administration officials announced Feb. 10 that firefighters and other volunteers would not be counted as employees under the law. But U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, who was among 410 House members voting in favor of the legislation Wednesday, said House members felt the need to write the volunteer exemption into the health care law, which has been continually tweaked by the executive branch since Congress passed it in 2010.

“While we are pleased the Obama administration reversed its initial decision due to the pressure from Congress and volunteer emergency providers, there’s no guarantee this decision will stay in place,” McKinley said. “We need to ensure these men and women are treated fairly by making this the law.”

It’s unclear whether the Democrat-controlled Senate will take up the legislation.

According to McKinley, 95 percent of all fire departments in West Virginia are staffed by volunteers.

“It’s unfair to penalize these men and women who put their lives on the line,” he said. “Requiring cash-strapped volunteer fire departments to offer health insurance would financially cripple most departments.”

It’s unclear, however, how many volunteer departments would have been large enough to trigger the employer mandate, which requires those with 50 or more workers to offer its employees health insurance coverage or face penalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per worker.

Employers with 100 or more workers will have to offer coverage by next year, while those with 50-99 employees have until 2016 to comply with the law.