A local congressman wants answers on whether volunteer firefighting companies could be unintentionally swept into the national health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs has asked the Internal Revenue Service, which has partial oversight of the law, to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means their hose companies or towns must offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don't.

The organization representing the fire chiefs has been working on the issue with the IRS and White House for months.

"It could be a huge deal," said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, who is seeking clarification from the IRS. "In Pennsylvania, 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly volunteer firefighters. It's the fourth highest amount in the country."

So far, the IRS hasn't decided what to do.

Efforts to reach spokesmen for the IRS were unsuccessful.

Concerns

Under the fire chiefs' organization's interpretation, there are several concerns.

The health care reform law, known officially as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and derisively by Republicans as Obamacare, requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance. Companies with fewer than 50 employees do not have to offer insurance. Full-time employees are defined as an employee who works 30 or more hours a week.

Such employers who don't offer health insurance must pay fines.

The requirement is complicated by differing interpretations about the status of volunteer firefighters within the federal government. The Department of Labor, according to the fire chiefs group, classifies most volunteers as non-employees, but the IRS considers all volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of their departments.

"If the IRS classifies volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel as employees in their final rule, fire departments may be unintentionally forced to comply with requirements that could force them to curtail their emergency response activities or close entirely," the chiefs' group says on its website.

Barletta said the problem could be even more complicated if the IRS counts volunteer hose companies as one department in towns with more than one hose company or as part of a town's workforce. Definitions like that could bump the total numbers beyond the 50-employee threshold and require offering coverage that towns or hose companies cannot afford, he said.

The IRS must also define what sort of volunteer duty counts toward the 30-hour-a-week limit.

Barletta wrote a letter urging the IRS to write a rule that labels volunteer firefighters as non-employees.

"There needs to be clarification because this could be serious," he said. "That's all we're looking at and that we haven't heard anything concerns me."

Bruce Moeller, chairman of a task force for the fire chiefs group and head of safety and emergency services for Pinellas County, Fla., said the problem arose because the IRS already considers volunteers as employees and requires all departments to issue W-2 forms for any sort of compensation for volunteers. He's sure Congress did not intend to require volunteer fire departments to offer health insurance when it passed the health law.

"Welcome to federal regulations," he said. "It's one of those quirks."

Mount Carmel example

Mount Carmel Mayor J. Kevin Jones said he hopes this issue is corrected if it proves to be the case.

"It's such a mess; it's going to implode," he said.

Jones said it's difficult to gauge for Mount Carmel which volunteers and what hours would be included to consider the firefighters eligible for health care coverage.

There are three companies in the Mount Carmel Fire Department: Anthracite Steam, Clover Hose and American Hose/West End. Each has about 10 core volunteers who are regularly available to fight fires, but a larger disaster might bring out double that amount, Jones said.

It's the same thing with the amount of hours: if they're not training, fighting fires or providing mutual aid, each firefighter probably serves less than 20 hours a week; but if there are multiple fires in the same week, they might put in 80.

"Everything comes at once, and then there are lulls," Jones said.

Mount Carmel has 13 full-time employees in its borough workforce and police department. Adding approximately 30 firefighters based on Jones' estimation of 10 core volunteers for the three stations would still keep the total under 50 for the entire municipality.

(News-Item Staff Writer Justin Strawser contributed to this story.)