Carolyn Kaster/AP

Firefighters win health care benefits

President Obama orders agencies to extend health insurance to part-time workers who battle wildfires.

President Obama this week directed agencies to extend health care benefits to part-time federal firefighters.

The policy change means more than 8,000 temporary seasonal firefighters now have access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The administration plans to issue more details on the change later this month, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

An online petition to provide health care coverage for part-time firefighters helped bring widespread attention to the issue, resulting in Obama’s directive. The campaign was started two months ago by John Lauer, a federal firefighter from the Custer, S.D.-based Tatanka Hotshot firefighting crew. The petition collected more than 126,000 signatures from across the country.

“This was one of those issues that made so much sense, it was just screaming for someone to change it,” said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and a former temporary firefighter. “I want to thank President Obama and OPM Director John Berry for their diligent work in delivering this essential benefit to our brave firefighters. Now we look forward to working them on developing a permanent solution.”

The timing is especially ripe, as federal firefighters have battled a brutal wildfire in Colorado, declared the worst in the state’s history, since late June. Federal officials said Tuesday the Waldo Canyon fire was 100 percent contained. Wildfires also are raging currently in New Mexico and Arizona. In the past 12 years, 179 wild land firefighters have been killed in the line of the duty. Wildfires are most common from May through October, so many federal firefighters are seasonally employed and often pack a year’s worth of work into six months. Because of the nature of their job, many suffer from respiratory illnesses.

“I speak on behalf of my own crew when I say that everybody is extremely grateful for the support,” Lauer wrote online after the news broke of the change. “This is going to make a real improvement in the lives of thousands of people and their families. Thank you.” Lauer’s godson, Rudy, was born prematurely and his parents were saddled with $70,000 in hospital bills because they didn’t have health insurance. Rudy’s father is a seasonal firefighter.

“No longer do our firefighters have to fear incurring thousands in medical bills if they are injured outside of the job, or if their child gets sick,” said Dougan. “These brave individuals put their lives on the line every year to protect our homes and communities.”

Obama directed OPM and the Agriculture and Interior departments to work on extending health benefits to part-time firefighters after he returned from his trip to Colorado to assess the Waldo Canyon fire. The agencies also are working with NFFE, which represents federal firefighters, on hammering out the details.