President Obama Demands Federal Health Insurance For Firefighters
July 11, 2012

President Obama Demands Federal Health Insurance For Firefighters

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Thousands of seasonal firefighters, the men and women who work the front lines of the country´s most treacherous terrain battling out-of-control wildfires, risking their lives to save the lives of many others, have gone without health insurance for themselves or their families for far too long, and now the Obama administration is drawing the fire out by ordering the government to offer plans to these die-hard workers.

The call, however, came only after many of these workers criticized the government for not offering affordable health insurance for those who were hired by the government to handle these dangerous blazes. The outcry was even more prominent after many were angered over the fact that a colleague was left with a $70,000 hospital bill after his son was born premature.

The order was made based on an electronic petition drive started by a member of the US Forest Service “hot-shot” crew based in South Dakota. That petition received about 125,000 signatures.

While an official announcement has yet to be made, a spokesperson at the White House told Reuters, in a conference call, that President Obama was working out the details and would address the issue soon.

Even as an official announcement is yet to be made, Obama has instructed the US Office of Personnel Management, the Interior Department and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to “ensure temporary federal firefighters who are bravely battling fires have access to the health insurance they deserve,” according to the spokesperson.

“You pray you don't get sick,” said John Lauer, a seasonal firefighter with the Tatanka Hotshots crew in Custer, SD, who recently battled the massive High Park Fire in northern Colorado. He was the initiator of the petition as well.

These firefighters are heroes in the eyes of those who are directly affected by these wildfires. They earn high praise from politicians for their selfless bravery, and residents, grateful for their services, offer them water, buy them food and send them thank you cards.

“That's what makes the job great,” Lauer said. “But sometimes I wonder to myself. I wonder if people know we're uninsured.”

These seasonal heroes do get workers´ compensation if they are hurt on the job, but that only covers them while they are working. During the off season, they are on their own. Most seasonal firefighters do a year´s worth of work in six months or less, added Lauer.

The National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho, coordinates firefighting efforts on a nationwide scale. It states that 15,000 wild land firefighters are on the federal payroll this year. Of that number, around 8,000 are classified as seasonal employees, who work on a season-to-season basis with no guarantee of a job the following year, and also with no access to federal benefits.

Rachel LaBruyere, an organizer of the petition drive on the nonpartisan social action website, said since these 8,000 seasonal workers are considered temporary, the government has held them as ineligible for federal benefits, such as health insurance through the government.

The Affordable Care Act, which will be implemented in the next two years, will allow these workers the same opportunity to buy health insurance as other uninsured Americans. Yet, firefighters want to be able to choose plans offered by the federal government, like other federal employees, said Cory K. Bythrow, a spokesman for the labor union: National Federation of Federal Employees.

With Obama on tap, it looks like that will now happen.

“It's a huge deal, and there's going to be a lot of really, really happy firefighters out there tonight,” said Lauer, 27. “I'm sure they're all very thankful for what the president's done.”

Mark Davis, president of the Forest Service Council of the union, said it will likely cost the government $17.5 million a year to insure seasonal firefighters working for the Forest Service, which employs about 70 percent of federal firefighters. The rest work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and various other agencies.

The union is now working with the Office of Personnel Management to offer insurance to these seasonal firefighters.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, said she will introduce a bill this week that would make the firefighters eligible for health benefits. “When the issue was brought to her attention by John (Lauer), she realized how unfair this was,” Juliet Johnson, DeGette´s spokeswoman, told Dan Elliott at the Associated Press on Monday

Lauer said he has worked for the government as a seasonal firefighter for six years and has never had health insurance during that time.

“The seasonal firefighters, they're the ones digging the trenches, cutting trees down, actually putting the fire out on the ground, and they're the ones breathing the smoke,” he said. On-the-job injuries have been covered by workers´ compensation under the old policy, he said, but “if I got bronchitis in the winter because I inhaled smoke for six months, that wouldn't be covered.”

Nathan Ochs, the firefighter who was left with the $70,000 bill for his prematurely born child, said that while the hospital forgave the family most of the debt, it drives home the message that firefighters really need health insurance.

Ochs subsequently become a permanent seasonal firefighter for the government and was able to get government insurance. But the experience fired him up (literally) and others to press the government to make health insurance coverage available to all seasonal federal firefighters.

“I feel that it's unfair and that it sends a message that the work isn't valued as it should be,” said Ochs.

There is no dispute of the dangers associated with wild land firefighting: lightning, falling trees, a dangerous landscape, as well as smoke and flames. More than 155 people have died battling wildfires in the US since 2003, according to the International Association of Wildland Fire; There is no data for injury statistics.

Public support for the petition grew during the High Park Fire and the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs. Together, the two blazes destroyed more than 600 homes, killed three people and burned up 162 square miles of land. Petitioners came from across the country, far and wide.

“I'm insulted for them, and I'm insulted for our country,” said Polly Tarpley, a resident of Poulsbo, Washington, who signed the petition for an obvious reason: “These men and women work their tails off in extremely dangerous conditions.”

Pam Shinkle, owner of Uncle Sam's Pancake House in Manitou Springs, Colorado, said: “We should be more than willing to pay them health insurance.” Dozens of firefighters helped to sustain business at Uncle Sam´s while ash fell from the sky and flames roared just over a nearby hill.

“We love our firemen,” Shinkle added. “They did a great job. They had a huge fire, and they got it out within two weeks, when they had been saying months.”

Davis noted that the cost to the government would be offset by the reduced turnover. The attrition rate for temporary seasonal workers in the Forest Service is four times greater than for permanent seasonal workers, he said, arguing that lack of health insurance is a factor.

“You would save money in the long run by reduced training costs, reduced safety issues, accidents, that sort of thing,” Davis said.

“These people put their lives on the line every day to protect our homes, our businesses, our entire communities,” Bythrow said. “We believe that they shouldn't have to rely on luck. They shouldn't have to rely on the generosity of one hospital or one doctor.”