Regulators have put to rest fears that the new federal health care law would decimate local fire departments that rely on volunteer or on-call firefighters.
In a blog post on Friday, U.S. Treasury Department Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark Mazur wrote that final regulations for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would not require volunteer hours to be counted when determining full-time employees.
"This is great and should give us a brief renewal of faith in our federal government," West Barnstable Fire Chief Joseph Maruca said Sunday about the announcement. "It happened a little quicker than I would have expected."
The West Barnstable Fire Department was among a handful of departments on the Cape and Islands that were concerned about the prospect of being required to pay for insurance for volunteer or on-call firefighters.
A provision in the new federal health care law that requires employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week to provide health insurance for them could have pushed costs up for several departments and towns in the region. While many departments rely more than ever on career firefighters, some local departments, such as West Barnstable, Brewster, Provincetown and Truro, still depend heavily on on-call or volunteer personnel.
Several local fire officials contacted by the Times last week said a requirement to buy health insurance for volunteers or on-call firefighters would be devastating financially.
In his blog posting, Mazur wrote that comments submitted to the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service on the proposed new regulations suggested that "the employer responsibility rules should not count volunteer hours of nominally compensated volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel in determining full-time employees" or full-time equivalents.
It appears regulators got the message that was delivered by many rural and suburban fire chiefs, Maruca said, adding that 70 percent of the fire departments in the U.S. use volunteers.
"This wasn't some small special-interest group in the corner," he said.
While there still may be a question about the status of so-called volunteer firefighters who make upward of $20,000 or $30,000 a year, for departments where the income of volunteer firefighters from stipends is several hundred or several thousand dollars annually, the Treasury Department's decision will be a relief, Maruca said.
The West Barnstable department has 45 on-call firefighters who typically make between $1,000 and $3,000 a year in stipends, Maruca said.
"We think this guidance strikes the appropriate balance in the treatment provided to traditional full-time emergency responder employees, bona fide volunteers, and to our Nation's fire responder units, many of which rely heavily on volunteers," Mazur wrote in his blog posting. ___