The issue of health insurance for seasonal firefighters exploded into public awareness last month during the deadly wildfires in Colorado, and petitions were started to request that the federal government allow seasonal firefighters access to the same federal health insurance as their full time colleagues.
The federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a ruling yesterday – effective immediately – that grants seasonal firefighters access to health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHB), which allows federal employees to select from among several private health insurance policies. Normally, eligibility for FEHB requires an employee to have completed a full year of service. This is not possible for seasonal firefighters, since they are employed for temporary positions during the fire season, usually for only six months at a time. So until OPM issued the new rules, seasonal firefighters were never eligible for health insurance through FEHB. Their only real options were to obtain health insurance as a dependent on a spouse’s plan, or to apply for coverage in the individual market – which is subject to underwriting (and some individual carriers won’t accept applicants who have high risk jobs).
The OPM ruling details the unique health insurance needs of fire personnel: although these men and women are covered by workers’ comp when they’re fighting a fire, they have a heightened risk for health conditions off the clock too, due to the nature of their jobs. They come into contact with various hazardous substances and are subject to extreme physical and mental stress that can take a toll on one’s health. So their need for health insurance doesn’t end when they hang up their fire gear at the end of a very long shift.
In addition, the OPM ruling notes that there is a pressing need for high quality, experienced firefighters during the fire season, and making them eligible for health insurance via FEHB is a good way to attract and retain good seasonal firefighters. The ruling allows for FEHB eligibility to be extended to other temporary emergency responders on a limited basis, but their agencies will have to apply for eligibility and it will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The OPM ruling doesn’t specifically say how the health insurance premiums will be paid for seasonal firefighters, but it mentions 5 U.S.C. 8913(b), which indicates that the the coverage will be provided in the same manner for these seasonal employees as it is for full-time federal employees. The contributions subchapter in that regulation states that the government will pay up to 75% of the total health insurance premiums for employees enrolled in FEHB. My understanding is that the firefighters will be eligible to keep the FEHB coverage during their off season, but they will have to pay the premiums themselves during that time.