When there's a fire in Pennsylvania, it's likely that volunteers show up to put it out.
Ninety-seven percent of the commonwealth is protected by volunteer firefighters, the fourth highest percentage in the nation.
Congressman Lou Barletta (R-11th District) is raising the alarm and insisting that volunteer fire companies need to be rescued from the Affordable Care Act.
"I know, as a former mayor, that this would force many fire departments to close and municipalities and communities to decide what they'll do for fire protection," Barletta said Wednesday while touring the Steelton Volunteer Fire Department.
The burning issue for Barletta? Employers with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance beginning in January under the ACA mandate. Will fire companies be forced, at great expense, to provide health insurance for their volunteer firefighters?
Fairview Township volunteer firefighter Robert Timko, who's also on the National Volunteer Fire Council, first brought the issue to Barletta's attention during the Mechanicsburg firemen's parade this fall.
"Financially it could be devastating," Timko said. "Each individual department has their budgets and their funding sources. It could possibly bankrupt a fire department. How could they pay for it?"
Barletta asked the IRS for clarification since the IRS will be the ACA's enforcement arm. He expected them to quickly say volunteers are exempt from the ACA requirements. But Barletta says the response was that the Treasury is "reviewing" the matter. That concerned Barletta, so he's authored a bill that would exempt volunteer firefighters and EMT's from the mandate.
"This is just one more example of what then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi meant when she said, 'we have to pass this to find out what's in it,' " Barletta said.
It's also unclear whether a municipality's employee head count must include its volunteer firefighters and who's calculating whether they're working the 30 hours necessary to be considered full-time under the ACA.
"I guess when the buzzer rings and they go out you could say they're borough employees," said Steelton Mayor Tom Acri.
Acri said his borough provides health insurance to its municipal employees but couldn't afford to cover its volunteer firefighters as well.
"We have 52 employees," Acri said. "We pay about $450,000 a year for health care. We could not afford to put another 50 guys on. We probably couldn't afford to put four guys on."
Acri says Steelton was forced to eliminate its ambulance service a few years ago. He's now worried about the future of the fire department.
"What's gonna be next? Give up the police department? Before you know it, the little hometowns are gonna be gone," he said.
Barletta said within hours of introducing his legislation he had 75 sponsors. He hopes putting further burden on volunteer emergency responders is just an unintended oversight.
"These are volunteers that go out with boots, and sell hoagies, and fund raise and do whatever they can just to provide the services for their community," he said. "We need to know, they need to know how this will impact them, if it will."