WASHINGTON — Volunteer fire departments will not face a small business mandate under the Affordable Care Act as some feared, according to the Treasury Department.
The Treasury Department expects to issue final regulations soon that will exempt government-run and non-profit fire departments from having to count hours worked by volunteers in determining if they fall under the "employer shared responsibility" requirement, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur said Friday.
The Arkansas congressional delegation has co-sponsored legislation that would put the exemption into law after hearing concerns raised by rural fire departments that most small rural departments would close if they were required to provide health insurance to their volunteers.
"We think this guidance strikes the appropriate balance in the treatment provided to traditional full-time emergency responder employees, bona fide volunteers, and to our nation’s first responder units, many of which rely heavily on volunteers," Mazur said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, backed legislation to make clear that rural fire departments in Arkansas wouldn’t be required to provide health insurance coverage to their volunteers.
The two political rivals signed on as co-sponsors last month to legislation to specifically provide the exemption in law rather than leave it to federal agencies to determine through regulation.
Jimmy Sullivent, president of the Arkansas Rural & Volunteer Firefighters Association, said Wednesday that the legislation is the "best remedy" to resolve ongoing concerns that small business mandates in the Affordable Care Act would apply to rural fire departments.
"If we had to provide insurance, my guess is at least 85 percent of the departments would have to close their doors. They couldn’t afford it," Sullivent said. "The legislation would really help us out."
Cotton is challenging Pryor for U.S. Senate in 2014. Although the two agree on the need for a fix, they are clashing over the issue on the campaign trail.
Cotton’s campaign issued a news release earlier this week blasting Pryor for his support of President Obama’s signature health law as an unfolding disaster that could threaten volunteer fire departments with "the possibility of crushing new costs."
"Because Senator Pryor put President Obama’s agenda over the interests of Arkansas when he cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, America’s volunteer fire departments could end up paying the price," Cotton said in the release.
Pryor said his position has always been to work to improve any problems that arise as the health care law rolls out.
"As I’ve said many times before, I will always work to find responsible solutions to fix problems where they exist," he said.