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Federal firefighters go uninsured

Associated Press

As brutal wildfires spread in Colorado, federal fighters, along with state and local first responders, are doing everything they can to deal with the disaster.

But Sarah Kliff noted a detail yesterday that I did not know: thousands of federal firefighters do not have health insurance.

Of all the jobs where you might want health insurance, firefighting near certainly ranks near the top of the list. Firefighters spend two-week shifts working 18 hour days in dangerous conditions. Some develop breathing problems due to smoke inhalation.

But many federal firefighters are temporary employees, who only work six months out of the year.... Under federal regulations, temporary employees of the Forest Service do not receive benefits. That means no health care and no retirement pension.

"A lot of them are not making a lot," says Bill Dougan, president of the National Federal of Federal Employees. "The only way they can afford insurance is if they have a spouse that might be able to get coverage under an employer. In some places that's not an option."

For what it's worth, the Affordable Care Act would extend health care subsidies to these firefighters -- many of whom make modest salaries between $25,000 and $35,000 a year -- making insurance affordable for them in 2014. Then again, in about two hours, Republicans on the Supreme Court might kill the Affordable Care Act.

Another possibility are proposals empowering the Forest Service to make some temporary firefighters permanent, expanding their benefits eligibility, but this appears to still be in the talking-about phase.

In the meantime, as we watch the crisis unfold in Colorado, it's worth remembering that many of those fighting the blaze are going without health insurance.

Postscript: Incidentally, didn't Mitt Romney and his campaign just spend a week telling voters it's absurd of President Obama to want to hire more firefighters? Given the developments, maybe that wasn't the smartest thing Romney has ever done?

Update: John Lauer, a 27-year-old member of a Colorado-based "hotshot" crew, is one of the uninsured first responders, and he's created a petition on in support of health benefits for firefighters. As of this afternoon, it has a little over 116,000 signatures.