Firefighters battling extensive blazes in the nation's western states will now have access to federal health insurance benefits.
The White House Office of Personnel Management, acting under a directive from President Barack Obama, announced Tuesday a change to the health program covering federal workers to allow firefighters access to the program.
Because many of the firefighters combating the wildfires around the country were considered temporary or part-time employees, they were not previously eligible to enroll in the Federal Employee Health Benefits program.
In a written statement, President Barack Obama said that the extension of health coverage was no more than the brave men and women of the federal firefighting force deserve.
"Their heroism in battling the deadly fires that have impacted states across the country this summer inspires us all," Obama said. "Each day, these Americans put themselves in grave danger to save the lives of people they never met, which is why I directed my administration to ensure that our nation's firefighters can count on the care and protection they need."
The OPM rules will now allow "thousands" of firefighters working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Interior Department to buy into the program, both for themselves and their families.
"Issuing this interim final regulation meets President Obama's direction to ensure that the brave men and women who compose our nation's federal firefighter ranks, and who are currently fighting dangerous wildfires in states across the country, are eligible for the same health insurance available to other federal employees, retirees and their families," OPM Director John Berry said in a written statement.
Furthermore, the firefighters will have the option of continuing their coverage - admittedly at their own expense - once they return home.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also hailed the move in a written statement.
"I know that when a federal firefighter is heading out to the line to defend Americans' lives and property from dangerous, destructive wildfire, it doesn't matter whether they're a 'temporary' firefighter or not," Vilsack said.
He added, "Today's announcement means that every one of our federal firefighters will have the health coverage he or she deserves - and that's something we can be proud of."
Although the rule permitting the expanded health benefit coverage takes effect immediately, there remains an additional 60 day public comment period and the OPM plans to issue additional guidance on enrollment and administrative matters in coming days.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also said that the expansion of benefits was simply a matter of fairness.
"The men and women who join the battle against devastating wildfires across the nation each summer take on the same risks as their full-time colleagues, and they deserve the same health benefits for their courageous work," Salazar said.
by RTT Staff Writer
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