Volunteer fire departments escape ACA requirement

IRS ruling made Jan. 10
Jan. 20, 2014 @ 04:59 PM

At the start of the year, the Guil-Rand Fire Department in Archdale was in the middle of .. well .. a firestorm caused by the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

According to the ACA, employers with more than 50 full-time employees must provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week. Under the terms of the ACA, volunteer firefighters who receive nominal benefits such as stipends, end-of-the-year banquets and awards, would count as employees.

Guil-Rand has 31 full time and seven part-time paid employees and 43 volunteers. The ACA would have put Guil-Rand over the 50-employee mark.

Volunteer fire departments in Thomasville, for the most part, would not have been impacted by the ACA requirement.

However, all of them are relieved that the firestorm was extinguished on Jan. 10 by a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service.  “[The IRS] 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).”

The International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council lobbied to be excused from the mandate that health insurance coverage should be provided for some volunteer personnel.

That fire may have been extinguished for now, but there are more issues ahead.

“Our insurance renewal wasn’t due until March, but in order to keep our policy we had to renew in December,” said Guil-Ran Fire Department Chief Brian Cox. “We had a 16 percent increase, but we were told that if we didn’t renew early there could be as much as a 60 percent increase.”

The December increase made their insurance rates go up $35 per month for each full-time employee, which means a total increase of $1,100 per month.

If the department had to include the volunteers, Cox estimates it would have cost about $250,000 a year.

“The Affordable Care Act defines anyone that you give a plaque or a gift to as an employee,” said Cox, who appreciates the volunteers and feels that they deserve a plaque.

For now, it appears volunteers can receive their due appreciation.

The future for 2014 is as unsure for Guil-Rand, as it is for any business. There’s no certainty.

Before the IRS ruling, the ACA had the potential to affect smaller departments, as well.

Fair Grove Fire Department, which serves Trinity and Thomasville, operates with 18 part-time paid staff and 72 volunteer firefighters.

“As we have no full-time staff, we currently do not provide insurance,” said Chief Jason Myers. “Most of our part-time and volunteer firefighters are full-time employees who have insurance elsewhere.

“So, as of right now, we are not affected,” he said prior to the Jan. 10 ruling. “Unless something changes.”

As an all-volunteer department, an insurance mandate would have been devastating for the Sophia Fire Department in Randolph County.

With 25 firefighters on the roster, Chief Harris Brown said there is no way the department’s budget could provide the required insurance.

"I don't have enough budget to operate on now," he said. "It would definitely have a negative effect. In fact, we just couldn't do it."

Chief Donald Craft of the Pilot Fire Department, which serves Thomasville, is grateful for the exemption. His department has a paid staff of 10, but none of them are full-time. It was unlikely they would have been impacted by the ACA.

But Craft, who has discussed the issue with Cox and other chiefs, was aware that other volunteer fire departments could have faced a more severe impact.

What does the future hold?

“That’s a hard question to answer,” Craft said. “Departments will have to address the issue individually.”