Health care ruling exempts volunteer emergency personnel

WHITE CITY — A recent Department of the Treasury declaration means that volunteer firefighters won't have to be covered under the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden told fire officials during a roundtable meeting Saturday morning.

Fire district chiefs and board members from Jackson and Josephine counties and Brookings met with Walden at Jackson County Fire District No. 3 headquarters to learn about the determination and to share other concerns with the congressman.

"Had we not gotten this ruling, the IRS was about to tell fire departments the volunteers were paid employees," Walden told the media before the session. "That (ruling) will save rural departments from financial ruin. The volunteers want to fight fires and perform emergency medical services on a volunteer basis."

While fire officials were glad to hear about the Treasury ruling, they said a lack of coordination between government agencies at both the state and federal levels leaves the status of volunteers uncertain. About 80 percent of Oregon firefighters are volunteers.

Walden said he and others approached the IRS about the volunteer issue. The Treasury Department announced on Jan. 10 that forthcoming rules will exempt volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel from being counted as employees under the ACA.

Many fire departments have switched to a true volunteer status in recent years to avoid having firefighters classified as employees and incurring potential tax and retirement obligations. Many firefighters previously received "nominal compensation."

"It did fix the Affordable Care Act with volunteers," said Kevin Henson, fire chief of Marion County Fire District No. 1, who chairs an Oregon Fire Chiefs Association task force examining the status of volunteers.

But Henson expressed concern about some of the wording in the Treasury statement, such as "bona fide volunteers" and "nominal compensation." He asked that Walden make an effort to get agencies that don't appear to care about the differences in how they use terms applying to volunteers to coordinate efforts.

"Anything you can help us with will be appreciated," Henson told Walden.

Illinois Valley Fire District Deputy Chief Jeff Gavlik also was pleased with the ACA ruling, but he was concerned about other conflicts.

"It's still the ongoing battle over the language issue," said Gavlik. "It's still the biggest concern."

Additional money was put in the latest appropriation bill to aid partnerships between the rural fire departments and the federal government to fight fires, educate the public and reduce fuels, Walden told the gathering.

Money spent to educate communities about fire dangers has a dramatic effect on fire-fighting, said Deputy Chief Lang Johnson of Grants Pass Department of Public Safety, when he learned of the funding.

Walden asked the fire officials about other concerns they had.

Chief Dan Petersen of Jackson County Fire District No. 3 said work and money is needed to improve communications. A fire engine sent to the other side of the Table Rocks from the White City area is unable to communicate with other units due to a lack of repeaters.

Petersen said costs for communications are going up six to seven percent per year, but district revenues are rising just two or three percent, or in some cases declining due to falling property values.

Henson asked that Walden support House Bill 3747, the Volunteer Responders Incentive Protection Reauthorization Act. The bill would provide for $50 per month payments to volunteers up to $600 annually, with the income being tax free.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.


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