Barack Obama, Obama Administration, President Obama — July 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Obama administration extends health benefits to seasonal federal firefighters


POTUS leadership: UR doin it right

Today, at the direction of President Obama, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced an Executive Order that “interim final regulation that immediately extends eligibility for health insurance coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) program to temporary firefighters and fire protection personnel working on wildland fires across the country”. These brave men and women have been working in overdrive mode as the country faces the most debilitating drought in decades.

The effort began when the wife of firefighter John Lauer had a premature baby and racked up $70,000 in medical bills while he was off fighting wildfires. Because they are seasonal, prior to this new rule, the firefighters were not eligible for federal health insurance coverage. An online petition was started that gathered over 125,000 signatures, spurring Denver Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette to introduce legislation to correct this situation. However, President Obama stepped in and directed the OPM to take immediate action that led to today’s announcement. (More on the Lauer’s situation from NPR HERE.)

From the OPM’s press release:

OPM worked closely with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) – the two agencies that employ our nation’s wildland federal firefighting force – to provide thousands of temporary federal firefighters and their families with a simple, expedited process to gain access to the coverage they deserve. Many federal firefighters are temporary employees because of the seasonal nature of their work. Under previous regulations, they were not eligible for health insurance coverage under the FEHB program, which provides insurance to other federal employees, retirees, and their families. Under the rule change, the FEHB program will officially be extended to federal firefighters and fire protection personnel temporarily employed to respond to the wildland fires. As a result, the men and women of the wildland firefighting force will have the option to purchase FEHB coverage for themselves and their families – providing health care coverage while they fight fires, with the option to continue their coverage at their own expense when they return home.

President Obama issued the following statement:

Starting today, the brave men and women of our nation’s federal firefighting forces, as well as their families, will have access to the health coverage they deserve. Their heroism in battling the deadly fires that have impacted states across the country this summer inspires us all. Each day, these Americans put themselves in grave danger to save the lives of people they never met, which is why I directed my administration to ensure that our nation’s firefighters can count on the care and protection they need.

OPM Director John Berry said, “Issuing this interim final regulation meets President Obama’s direction to ensure that the brave men and women who compose our nation’s federal firefighter ranks, and who are currently fighting dangerous wildfires in states across the country, are eligible for the same health insurance available to other federal employees, retirees and their families.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also issued a statement, praising the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight the fires raging across our parched nation:

The men and women who join the battle against devastating wildfires across the nation each summer take on the same risks as their full-time colleagues, and they deserve the same health benefits for their courageous work. The President asked us to work together to close this gap on behalf of federal firefighters and their families who make sacrifices to protect the lives and property of all Americans.

The rule is an “interim final regulation”, meaning that there is a 60-day comment period before it is made permanent. I wonder if Rep. Eric Cantor will introduce legislation to reverse the new rule unless budget cuts are made to offset the costs like he did when Joplin, Missouri was essentially scrubbed off the face of the earth by tornados last year?

I wouldn’t put it past him…

You can read the regulation HERE (pdf).

[Obama image credit: Anne C. Savage]