After visiting Colorado Springs, one of the towns most devastated by ongoing wildfires, President Obama instructed officials to offer federal health insurance to seasonal firefighters, the Denver Post reports.
Hundreds of seasonal firefighters—a force comprised mostly of young people and college students—have been battling especially severe wildfires in Colorado and other Western states, risking both immediate danger and long-term health consequences from bronchitis to lung cancer. Obama reportedly told his cabinet upon his return that he wanted to “find a solution” for these firefighters, who are not eligible for federal insurance because they are not full-time workers. Earlier this summer, an online petition garnering 126,000 signatures helped promote the cause to insure firefighters and another Denver Post article highlighted the need:
Tales of temporary firefighters or their families suffering from expensive ailments or putting off care are “a dime a dozen,” Lauer said from southeastern Wyoming, on the Russells Camp fire. Lauer is in his sixth temporary season and will soon start University of Denver law school classes but said he worries more about other families.
“The issue really hit home when my godson was born prematurely and his folks got stuck with a huge hospital bill,” Lauer said.
That family, Nate Ochs and Constance Van Kley in South Dakota, now has insurance through Ochs’ permanent job. But more than half the Tatanka crew is temporary, without federal insurance, Van Kley said. “A lot of them are in that phase of beginning to sort out a career and family,” she said. “Being uninsured is stressful even when you’re 19.”
It is not yet clear how many people will now be covered or for how long, as most of these workers will find new jobs by winter. Mark Davis, president of the Forest Service Council of the union, estimated for the Associated Press that the federal government would pay $17.5 million a year to pay its share of premiums for seasonal firefighters working for the Forest Service, which employs about 70 percent of federal firefighters. The Office of Personnel Management will release the directive to provide access to the firefighters by the end of the month and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) has also introduced legislation meant to provide health insurance for firefighters and their families.
In the past, these workers would either forgo health insurance entirely or purchase an individual policy made more expensive by their high-risk jobs. Under Obamacare, by 2014, all uninsured Americans will be able to find coverage in the state exchanges.