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Firefighters gain federal health

By Jay MacDonald ·
Friday, July 20, 2012
Posted: 10 am ET

Firefighters who work as temporary federal employees, including many who are risking their lives to save large expanses of the American West, became eligible for federal health insurance coverage this week.

Typically, temporary federal employees aren't afforded coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program until they've been on the job for one continuous year.

But an online public petition in April followed by a first-hand look at the devastation in Colorado in June prompted President Obama to sign an executive order last week that instructs the Office of Personnel Management to extend coverage, including family coverage, to part-time federal firefighters on the same basis as full-time federal employees.

The temporary federal firefighters will receive the same government contribution to their insurance coverage, which typically covers roughly 70 percent of the premium, as fulltime federal employees. They can choose to continue their coverage once they leave the government's payroll but it will be entirely at their own expense.

The rule change affects more than 8,000 temporary wilderness firefighters who make up more than half of the firefighters on the federal payroll this year. Enrollment procedures and other plan details will be forthcoming from the OPM following a comment period.

"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," OPM Director John Berry said in a statement.

Washington Post blogger Joe Davidson says the old rule made Uncle Sam seem particularly stingy. That's because while federal temps were only allowed to work 1,039 hours (just under six months, not including overtime), "many firefighters work so much overtime that they put in nearly a year's worth of work in a half-year's time."

The loophole gained national attention when 27-year-old John Lauer, a six-year seasonal firefighter from South Dakota, launched an online petition that told the story of fellow firefighters whose families had fallen deep in debt for want of health insurance.

As of Tuesday, that petition had more than 126,300 very happy signers.

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