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January 6, 2014

Law leaves system in limbo

FREEPORT, Maine — Fire chiefs and lawmakers are working to protect the system of volunteer firefighting that has served rural America for more than a century but is threatened by an ambiguity in President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Small and rural fire departments from California to Maine, which has one of the country’s highest percentages of volunteer and on-call firefighters, rely on volunteers to avoid the budget-strapping cost of paying them to be on duty in between fighting fires.

The volunteers are considered employees for tax purposes, a classification that grew out of an ongoing effort to attract firefighters by offering them such incentives as stipends, retirement benefits and free gym memberships.

That leaves open the question of whether the volunteer firefighters fall under the health care law’s requirement that employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week must provide health insurance for them. Fire departments say they can’t afford to pay such a cost.

“Most of these are operating on a shoestring budget — holding pancake dinners to raise money to put enough gas in the truck so they can respond to the next fire, the next medical call,” said Dave Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Faced with the cost of insurance, or being fined if they fail to provide it, departments would likely be forced to reduce the number of hours firefighters can volunteer or eliminate the benefit programs, officials said.

That has both fire chiefs and lawmakers raising concerns.

Darrel Fournier, fire chief in Freeport, a town of about 8,000 people near the coast in southern Maine that’s home to L.L. Bean, said his department is bracing for what could be significant costs under the health care law. He expects he’ll have to provide coverage for the five firefighters he employs part time. That would cost the city — and ultimately taxpayers — about $75,000, or a penalty of $150,000.

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