Thousands battling wildfires uncovered
DENVER – President Barack Obama will make federal health insurance available to about 8,000 temporary wildland firefighters, a White House official said Tuesday.
Despite the grueling and dangerous work they do, the 8,000 firefighters aren’t covered by federal health insurance because they are temporary seasonal employees. Under federal personnel rules, such employees can’t buy into federal health insurance plans.
The White House official said firefighters will get access to federal insurance plans this month. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama’s decision hasn’t been formally announced.
Temporary seasonal firefighters make up more than half of the 15,000 wildland firefighters on the federal payroll this busy wildfire season.
Obama’s decision was first reported by the Denver Post and came after stories by the Post, the Associated Press and others about the firefighters’ dilemma.
Members of a South Dakota-based hotshot crew who fought massive wildfires in Colorado and other states this year launched a petition drive seeking health benefits, largely out of anger over a colleague who was left with a $70,000 hospital bill after his son was born prematurely.
Their petition quickly gathered more than 125,000 signatures, bolstered by this year’s historic fire season in the West and the ongoing national debate over health care.
“That’s amazing. Wow,” said Constance Van Kley, wife of firefighter Nathan Ochs, when she was told of Obama’s decision. The couple had no health insurance when their son, Rudy, was born seven weeks premature in 2008.
The hospital forgave most of their $70,000 bill, but it was their experience that spurred Ochs, John Lauer and other firefighters to start their petition drive.