WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-11) on Tuesday introduced the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act to "specifically exempt volunteer firefighters and volunteers providing emergency medical services from the Employer Mandate Provision of Obamacare."

Barletta, according to a press release from his office, has been concerned fire companies and municipalities would be forced to provide health insurance for volunteer firefighters - who are considered by the IRS to be employees - or pay a fine, saddling them with unbearable financial burdens and threatening public safety. Barletta sent the IRS a letter in November requesting clarification, but the correspondence has gone unanswered as of Tuesday, his office reported.

The legislation is supported by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

"Without further guidance from the IRS - which could have issued a clarification immediately if it so chose - we have no choice but to pursue a legislative fix to yet another problem with Obamacare," Barletta said.

Under the Employer Mandate Provision, employers with 50 or more employees must provide health insurance or pay penalties. This could be problematic for fire companies, particularly in Pennsylvania, where 97 percent of stations rely exclusively or mostly on volunteers. Fire companies could exceed the 50 employee threshold in several different ways: by themselves based on their size, by being part of a larger combined force under several different chiefs or by being part of a municipality that has 50 or more public employees in total.

"It is critically important that fire and EMS agencies not be forced to offer health insurance to volunteer personnel," Philip C. Stittleburg, Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, was quoted in Barletta's release. "Agencies don't have the resources to provide health benefits to their volunteers and individual volunteers have no expectation of receiving such benefits from the agencies they serve."

Barletta was first alerted to the issue during a parade in the 11th District by Robert Timko, a volunteer firefighter who also serves as Pennsylvania Alternate Director for the National Volunteer Fire Council.

"How exactly would they total up hours on duty for volunteers?" Barletta said. "Does it mean when a volunteer is wearing a beeper or carrying a fire department cell phone? Does it include downtime at the station house? Listening to a scanner?" Barletta asked.