Obama says part-time firefighters can buy employee health insurance

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 10, 2012

Uncle Sam is finally closing a loophole that allowed him to avoid offering health insurance for some federal employees who risk their lives to save the lives and property of others.

Federal firefighters regularly work in a burning hell. But many are allowed to work only 1,039 hours, just under six months, not including overtime. That makes them part-timers who are not eligible to secure health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP).

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Until now.

President Obama met with firefighters during his trip to a Colorado fire area last month. Now, his administration plans to issue interim regulations allowing them to buy health insurance just like other employees.

“Federal firefighters are putting their lives at risk every day across the country,” said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, in an e-mail. “When the President returned from his trip to Colorado, he directed us to solve the problem of extending access to the FEHBP for those firefighters.”

The 1039 rule, which the Federal Diary wrote about in 2010, always made Sam appear cheap, like he was just looking for a way to cheat heroic firefighters out of insurance needed to combat ailments often received in the line of duty.

It’s a bogus rule because many firefighters work so much overtime that they put in nearly a year’s worth of work in a half-year’s time.

“It’s not uncommon to put in a thousand hours of overtime” in six months, said John Lauer, 27, a six-year firefighter with the Tatanka Hotshot Crew based in Custer, South Dakota.

Lauer, who lives in Denver, started an online petition in late April “asking President Obama to extend health coverage benefits to seasonal wildland firefighters.” As of early Tuesday evening, the petition had more than 126,300 signatures. With the help of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the petition and the plight of the firefighters got national media attention.

On the petition, Lauer tells the story of his godson, Rudy, who was born prematurely: “Rudy’s dad, a fellow firefighter, was stuck with $70,000 worth of hospital bills that he and his wife couldn’t pay back. All because the federal government won’t allow him to access health insurance. Another crew member’s child, who was born even more recently, required special attention in the hospital and his parents’ are now facing $40,000 in medical bills.”

Rudy’s mom, Constance Van Kley, said the hospital forgave some of the charges, but the family still was stuck with a big bill. “We pay the little we can every month and have been doing that for four years,” she said in an interview. Now her husband is classified permanent seasonal, rather than temporary seasonal, so the family does have health insurance, but that doesn’t help with previous debts.

“We’re not asking for a handout,” Lauer told the Federal Diary. “We’re not looking for anything free here. We’re just looking for an opportunity to buy into [the insurance program] like other federal employees.”

That opportunity is almost here, but not a minute too soon.

“After a season, your body is broken down,” said Aaron Alpe, 29. A smoke jumper, he parachutes to remote areas to fight fires. “You inhale a lot of smoke,” said Alpe, who has had repeated bouts of bronchitis.

Before he got his permanent firefighting gig, after seven years in temporary status, he went without needed knee and foot surgeries because he couldn’t afford medical care.

“I just withheld going to the doctor a lot of the time,” he said. “And when I did go, I just paid out of pocket for needed medication for bronchitis and things like that.”

At one time, he bought health insurance on his own, but he had to let it go after less than a year.

“I couldn’t afford it,” he said.

Now part-timers won’t have the same problems Alpe faced.

NFFE President William R. Dougan, himself a former temporary seasonal wildland firefighter, said “this was one of those issues that made so much sense it was just screaming for someone to change it.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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