VFDs could close, can't afford Affordable Care Act

Published: Dec. 16, 2013 at 3:12 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 15, 2014 at 3:13 PM EST
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LANCASTER COUNTY, SC (WBTV) - Thousands of volunteer fire departments could close because they say they can't afford the Affordable Care Act.

It's being called an unintended consequence, but under the new law fire departments will be forced to provide health insurance for volunteers working more than 30 hours a week.

Lancaster County Fire Marshall Stephen Blackwelder tells WBTV that's a cost most departments can't afford.

"Without our volunteers, we would be nothing," Blackwelder told WBTV. "Our volunteers are here 24/7 and they are willing to risk their life and drop whatever they are doing to come help."

Blackwelder oversees 19 different stations and 300 volunteers in Lancaster County.

Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis says the County cannot afford to offer insurance.

"If council made the decision to offer insurance, and if they took full family coverage, we would be looking at literally millions of dollars a year," Willis said.

This problem is not unique to Lancaster County.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, there are more than 783,000 volunteer firefighters in the United States. That's 70% of America's Firefighting Force, according to the Council.

"Our volunteers are the backbone of public safety as far as the fire services goes here in Lancaster County. We literally couldn't do without them," Willis said.

A bill has been introduced in Washington that would exempt fire departments from offering health insurance to volunteers. Willis told WBTV that's a possible solution.

For now, fire chiefs are in a holding pattern, waiting to see how lawmakers react to the bill.

As the law stands now, the employer mandate for providing health insurance applies to fire departments that have at least 50 volunteer firefighters. That can include multiple fire houses within one company.

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