2014-01-02 / Front Page

New health care law could impact firefighters, EMS

By KEITH HEUMILLER
Staff Writer

Officials in Middletown and Keyport are concerned that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could require their towns to provide health benefits to volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) workers beginning in 2015.

During the Dec. 16 meeting of the Middletown Township Committee, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger said the federal health care legislation — commonly known as Obamacare — could have “tragic” impacts if something isn’t done.

“It says that even though they are volunteers, they are considered employees,” Scharfenberger said after the meeting. “What’s going to happen? You’re going to have to replace them with paid [workers]? It’s just a disaster, either way you see it.”

Under the ACA, employers with 50 employees or more are required to either provide health benefits to those who work more than 30 hours per week or pay an annual penalty. This “employer mandate” was slated to begin in 2014, but has now been delayed until 2015.

Recently, a number of local and federal officials have raised concerns that the legislation makes no provision for volunteer firefighters and EMS workers, who are considered town employees by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In Middletown, where approximately 350 firefighters man the township’s 11 allvolunteer fire companies, Scharfenberger said the town could be forced to either provide benefits for all emergency services workers or pay a costly fine for each volunteer. The same impacts would be felt in towns throughout the nation, he added.

“If there isn’t something done to roll back that provision, it would be disastrous across the country for volunteer firefighters,” he said.

In Keyport, a small borough with 42 employees, Mayor Harry Aumack II said the employer mandate could push the town over the 50-employee threshold, requiring full benefits for every employee working 30 hours or more.

“We could just give up on trying to keep it under 50, if that’s the case,” he said during the Borough Council’s Dec. 11 meeting.

Aumack and other officials said they had only heard rumors so far about the volunteer requirements, but would keep a close watch on any official developments going forward.

The same day, New Jersey Rep. John Runyan (R-3) joined Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta in introducing the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act, which would specifically exempt volunteer firefighters and EMS workers from the ACA.

As of Dec. 24, the legislation was still awaiting action in Congress.

Scharfenberger said he is planning to reach out to other federal officials, including Rep. Chris Smith (R-4), to express his concerns with the employer mandate.

Earlier this year, Middletown Township and the public school district Board of Education agreed to trim hours for roughly 200 part-time employees prior to the enactment of the employer mandate.

According to township and school district officials, the move ensured that parttime employees would work fewer than 30 hours per week, thus eliminating the requirement to provide benefits for them under the ACA. Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante said at the time that providing those benefits would be too costly for Middletown, which is currently self-insured.

“It’s an amount of money that we can’t afford to pay,” he said.

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