There are a lot of wildfires in Colorado right now. The largest one – the High Park Fire – has burned more than 83,000 acres, killed one person, and destroyed 248 homes. It’s burning about 15 miles west of here, so for the past couple weeks we’ve had a constant smoky reminder of the threat of wildfires, especially during hot dry years like this one. All of us in Colorado are grateful for the thousands of firefighters who are here battling the various blazes around the state. There are local crews, volunteers, part-time paid crews, firefighters from other states, and plenty of US Forest Service firefighters who work for the federal government.
For full-time Forest Service fire fighters, federal health insurance is available. But since wildfires are so much more common during the summer, the Forest Service hires lots of seasonal fire fighters for just six months of the year. And those seasonal workers don’t have access to health insurance through their work as fire fighters.
The Forest Service notes that the seasonal fire fighters are aware of the perks and drawbacks of the job when they sign on. They have flexibility to do other things during the winter months, and especially when overtime is taken into consideration, they are pretty well compensated for the time they spend fighting fires. But the benefits that are offered to full-time employees are not available for seasonal workers. To be fair, this is a pretty common practice. Most businesses that hire seasonal and/or temporary workers do not offer them the same benefits that they provide to full-time employees.
The comments section on the Denver Post article I linked to above has lots of the usual political bickering that seems to go along with any discussion about health insurance these days, but it also includes comments indicating that seasonal fire fighters are eligible for unemployment benefits during their off season. A few minutes on google seems to confirm this, although I imagine that the rules probably differ from state to state. Judging from the comments, some people seem to think that seasonal fire fighters have a pretty sweet life – working for six months and then collecting unemployment benefits for the rest of the year while doing whatever they want.
I suppose this could be true, but the job that these fire fighters do during their employed months is pretty rough. Most of us wouldn’t physically be able to do it, and the risk associated with the job is significant. It’s grueling and dangerous work, conducted in hot, smoky conditions, all while hiking through rugged terrain days from a shower or a real mattress.
In order for these seasonal fire fighters to have health insurance coverage, they have to apply for individual policies or have coverage through a spouse’s group policy. On the upside, most of them are in excellent physical health, since that’s pretty much a job requirement. That means that underwriting on an individual policy isn’t as likely to be a problem as it is for the general population. But it’s important to be aware that some individual health insurance carriers include occupation and/or hobbies in their underwriting guidelines. In Colorado, there are a few carriers that ask questions on the application to determine whether the applicant engages in any high-risk jobs or hobbies. Wildland fire fighting falls under that category, which means that it’s unlikely that the applicant would be approved for coverage by a carrier that includes occupational risk it its underwriting.
There are several reputable individual health insurance carriers in Colorado that do not use occupational risk in their underwriting assessments, and these are obviously a better choice for anyone who has a high-risk job. A good broker can steer an applicant towards the carriers that don’t use occupational risk as part of their underwriting. Combined with the workers’ comp that covers the fire fighters while they’re on the fire line, a solid individual health insurance policy – which provides significant flexibility since it isn’t linked to employment – can help to create a safety net for the people who put a lot on the line to keep the rest of us safe. In the current scenario, this is the best option. But it does seem like it would be a good idea for the Forest Service to allow seasonal fire fighters to at least have the option of purchasing – via payroll deduction – the same health insurance that their full-time coworkers get.