In a country where celebrities and sports figures are fashioned as so-called “heroes” in our culture, the true heroes of our society are being vilified, forgotten and looked down upon, even at a point in time when we need them the most. People like the teachers who instruct our children and encourage them to learn critical skills that will make them contributing members of society; scientists, who enlighten the world in which we live by showing us how the universe operates and our place within it; firefighters, who selflessly throw themselves into harm’s way to protect us, our families, our homes, and our land, never thinking about their own well-being.
But unlike many teachers and scientists, our firefighters, the most selfless among us, who would throw themselves into a burning building to save one person, one beloved pet, our communities, operate without the safety net of health insurance.
As I’ve watched the unprecedented fires of 2012 ravage my own state of Colorado, this fact is appalling and it offends every fiber of my being, because we have all watched these brave men and women put themselves on the front lines of two monstrously aggressive fires; the High Park Fire, which burned over 80,000 acres, destroyed nearly 350 homes and killed one person, and the Waldo Canyon Fire, which has burned over 17,000 acres, nearly 350 homes, and killed two people.
The High Park Fire is nearing full containment, and many of the evacuation orders have been lifted; the Waldo Canyon Fire is about 45% contained, and many people will be able to return to their homes – or what’s left of them – on Sunday.
None of that could have been possible without the brave battle fought by our firefighters – not just from Colorado, but from all over the country. Without these people, these fires would have burned out of control, with unimaginable destruction in their wake. And yet, we, as a country, cannot find a way to give them the most basic necessity for their line of work – healthcare (emphasis added):
Right now, wildfires of “epic proportions” are tearing through the Colorado forests.
Thousands of federal firefighters charged with taming the blazes do not have health insurance.
That includes 27-year-old John Lauer. He’s a member of a Colorado-based “hotshot” crew, one of the teams of the most skilled federal fighters that gets deployed where fires are the worst. In six years, he has fought fires in Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota – “Pretty much every state west of the Mississippi,” Lauer says. “Alaska too, once.”
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 (although as Lauer describes it, they can often work a full year’s worth of hours with the long shifts). Under federal regulations, temporary employees of the Forest Service do not receive benefits. That means no health care and no retirement pension.
The Affordable Care Act–if survives the Supreme Court Thursday–could help. It would guarantee access to health insurance for a firefighter who, for example, might have bronchitis. Many earn relatively low salaries, about $25,000 to $35,000 per year, meaning they would qualify for subsidies. If the law gets overturned, however, the firefighters stay in the same situation they’ve been in all along: Working a dangerous job and unable to afford coverage.
Lauer counts himself among the lucky ones on his crew; he has never had any serious health care needs. He skips out on preventive care, like regular check-ups, but hasn’t seen much harm. He’s looked at buying insurance but says it’s too expensive. Annual premiums for an individual policy hover around $2,777 in Colorado.
“It’s pretty pricey unless you can buy into a group policy,” he says.
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