Valley Fire & Rescue Squads Waiting on Confirmation of ACA Cover - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Valley Fire & Rescue Squads Waiting on Confirmation of ACA Coverage Requirement

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Federal requirements that healthcare benefits be required for volunteer firefighters could, some say, have financially crippled squads across Virginia. Now there's word from Washington that an exemption could save things.

With many rural communities in Augusta County, there's concern the mandate would make demands that are impossible to fulfill. Now, Senator Mark Warner says those volunteer first responders would be exempt from the required coverage – but fire and rescue leaders are waiting on a more official confirmation.

"We're looking at a doubling of our expenses basically if we would've had to do that. And that would be the end. That would be the end," said Ian Heatwole, president of Weyers Cave Volunteer Fire Department.

Heatwole says he doesn't know how the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide health insurance to volunteers in Augusta County would work. According to the new law, agencies that have more than 50 workers serving 30 hours or more must receive health care from that organization.

"None of the volunteers here I would say were expecting to be insured through the fire company," said Heatwole.

Five groups in the county would be affected by the law - Churchville, Swoope, Wilson, Stuarts Draft and Weyers Cave.

Chief Carson Holloway of Augusta County fire and rescue says it's because organizations with more than 50 contributors putting in at least 30 hours a week must now include health insurance.

While he thinks it's not a bad idea, he has reservations about how it plays out in reality.

"If this was enacted, it would put quite a financial burden on local jurisdictions and be very detrimental initially to the fire services we have here today," said Holloway.

But in this letter to Senator Mark Warner from the Department of Treasury, it looks like volunteer first responders - of which there are 48,000 in Virginia - can be exempt.

Heatwole says if it came down to it, his squad would pay a fine to the government before implementing health care coverage for all the volunteers.

"We're not going to cut down members, we're not going to deprive the community of a viable volunteer fire company just because of this potential expense to us. If somebody's volunteering, we're going to keep them here. We're not going to cut back hours. We're not going to cut back the number of volunteers," said Heatwole.

Senator Mark Warner Press Release

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) announced today that volunteer emergency service workers will not be required to be counted as full-time equivalent employees for purposes of healthcare coverage, which could have gutted the ranks of emergency first responders across the country. In a response to a letter that Sen. Warner sent in December, the U.S. Department of Treasury and Internal Revenue Service agreed today to exempt volunteer emergency responders from the healthcare mandate.

Some volunteer firefighters are nominally paid, and most volunteer first responders have other full-time employment. Many emergency response agencies do not have the resources to provide pay or benefits to volunteers, nor do most volunteer first responders expect to receive compensation or health coverage as a result of their volunteer public service. An estimated 48,000 volunteer firefighters serve across Virginia and an estimated 454 volunteer EMT's, according to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs the Virginia Department of Health, respectively.

"This is a huge victory for volunteer emergency responders and the communities that rely on them," Sen. Warner said. "I've said all along that there will be issues that arise with health care reform and that we should work in a bipartisan way to fix them. I am proud that together, we were able to solve this issue and keep America's first responders working for their communities."

Sen. Warner's letter is available here. The response is available here.

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