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Health care law could hurt local fire department

The Central Fire District in Rigby is anxiously waiting to hear whether volunteer firefighters will be counted as full-time employees under the Affordable Care Act.

The Internal Revenue Service has partial oversight of the law. Recently the IRS announced that it would exempt volunteer firefighters from the health care law. But the decision is not final and Central Fire District Chief Bryan Grover is hoping the agency does not change its mind.

Rigby, Ririe, Menan and Lewisville rely on the 75 volunteers that make up the Central Fire District. The IRS had considered volunteer firefighters working 30 hours a week a full-time employee. If this were to happen Grover would be forced to give volunteer firefighters health insurance or pay a fine.

“About $300 per employee per month to insure them,” Grover said.

“If we are forced to provide these insurance benefits I think you will see a lot of fire departments out of business,” he said.

This could have a huge impact in rural Idaho. Nearly 60 percent of Idaho’s 181 fire stations are volunteer agencies, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

“There would be a slower response time. We would probably have less personnel per fire because we would be limiting how many people could go to a fire,” Grover said.

The National Volunteer Fire Council has been fighting the IRS since September. When the blog came out saying volunteers were going to be exempt, things changed for the council.

“We are going to need to wait and read the final implementing regulations very closely before we can 100 percent declare victory,” said David Finger, director of Government Relations for the council.

Finger said if the final regulations turn out to be different people on the hill will be fighting for legislation to exempt volunteer firefighters under the health care law.

“If the IRS puts it on their blog post that they’re going to take care of this and they end up not following through, I think there will be an awful lot of sentiment in congress for doing something to address this,” Finger said.

The IRS did not say when to expect the final regulations. The National Volunteer Fire Council speculates it could be in June. The Central Fire District said if the IRS changes its mind, your fire taxes could go up nearly 35 percent.

Meanwhile, Grover said many of his volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs with health insurance benefits.

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