Wildland firefighters have been a familiar sight around Colorado this summer. The U-S Forest Service and other federal agencies have sent thousands of men and women here to protect homes, property and natural areas. The work is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous, but the job doesn’t come with health insurance benefits. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney says efforts are underway to change that.
This is a transcript of his story.
Reporter: Denver Native John Lauer signed on as a wildland firefighter with the U-S Forest Service six years ago.
Lauer: It’s a really exciting job, you get to spend a lot of time outdoors, you get to see a lot of interesting places. And there’s something gratifying in doing a hard job well and pushing yourself.
Reoporter: Seasonal firefighters get paid around $11 an hour, a few dollars more if they’re experienced. In a big fire season like this one, they can rack up so many overtime hours it’s almost like working a full year in a few months. If they’re injured on the job, they get treatment under workers’ compensation. But that’s it.
John Lauer saw how tough that is when one of his crew members had a son born prematurely.
Lauer: Because he was uninsured they got stuck with a $70,000 hospital bill. Kind of seeing the unjustice of that, and seeing the stress that put him and his family through, while he’s out there protecting peoples’ homes kind of drew the issue into focus for me.
Reporter: So Lauer started an online petition drive on the website Change.org to try to get seasonal firefighters the same health benefits as their federal colleagues who are employed year round. Nearly 125,000 people have signed it so far, and it got the attention of Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Denver.
DeGette: That just didn’t seem fair to me, so we went ahead and put together the legislation.
Reporter: DeGette is introducing a bill today to extend health coverage and life insurance benefits to seasonal wildland firefighters. She expects to start signing up cosponsors for it now that Congress is back in session and she’ll be able to talk to colleagues face to face, and she believes it will get bipartisan support.
DeGette: When politicians see these really brave men and women defending their communities and their states, and then they hear about the discrepancy in health insurance and life insurance they get from, say, the local and the state firefighters they’re fighting alongside of, that really captures their attention, and when they see a petition like this has been signed by 125,000 people so quickly, it really does get their attention.
Reporter: DeGette is awaiting word from the Congressional Budget Office on the price tag for the bill.
DeGette: And I think that, once we get some idea of how much it would cost to give these folks health care benefits, then we can figure out someplace to get it from the budget, so we can have an offset, that would be my goal. I don’t think we should deficit spend for a bill like this and I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that.
Reporter: DeGette says the money could come by spending less on private contractors who help fight wildfires.
Constance Van Kley is the firefighter’s wife who inspired John Lauer to launch the petition drive to get them health benefits. She thinks the public will support the bill when they learn seasonal firefighters don’t get coverage.
Van Kley: Yeah, it seems like that’s something that shocks just about everybody who hears it.
Reporter: Van Kley and her husband are still paying off their medical bills from their son’s premature birth four years ago. Since then, he’s been hired on full time, and now has health benefits.
Van Kley: We have another son, who was born after getting insurance, which made all the difference in the world for us. I didn’t have to weigh whether or not seeing the doctor was important enough to justify an expense that might take years to pay back, it was much less stressful.
Reporter: Congresswoman DeGette is optimistic that her bill will win enough bi-partisan support to move quickly through Congress. Her goal is to have health coverage for wildland firefighters in place before next fire season.
[Photo: National Interagency Fire Center]