Wildland firefighters could have health care in weeks

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DENVER -- It's quite the coincidence: Congresswoman Diana DeGette introducing the "Wildland Firefighter Health Protection Act" in Congress just hours before the White House leaked news that it would be issuing its own directive to achieve the same end -- allowing part-time U.S. Forest Service firefighters to purchase federal health insurance.

In an election year, it might matter to politicians who gets the credit.

But to the few thousand wildland firefighters spread across the country during this devastatingly dry summer, all that matters is getting affordable coverage at long last.

"This is an enormous deal for the entire wildland firefighter community," said John Lauer, a member of the Tanaka Hot Shots crew that worked to put out the recent High Park Fire.

"It's now going to be somewhere around $200 a month to cover a family; and without it it would would been about $800. So that's the difference between not getting preventative care for your pregnant wife and getting preventative care."

Lauer, who said that two members of his own crew have been hit with exorbitant medical bills after their children were hospitalized, was one of three wildland firefighters attending a press conference at DeGette's Denver office Friday morning, expressing thanks to her and the White House for answering their call for affordable health care.

Currently, only full-time federal employees are allowed to purchase federal health care plans; and wildland firefighters are technically part-time employees of the U.S. Forest Service.

"These firefighters return to do this every summer," DeGette said. "They really are permanent employees, even though the wildfire season is just during a season."

While the president's directive is expected some time this month, DeGette says she'll keep her bill on the back burner just in case it's needed.

Lauer and other firefighters might recognize that Colorado's swing state status didn't hurt their campaign for more affordable coverage.

But, they're just relieved about what it means to their families and friends on the fire lines.

"It's going to allow us to attract better firefighters to our ranks, to keep better firefighters in our ranks; and I think, most importantly for the people who are out there on the lines, for the first time in their careers they'll be able to sleep in the dirt tonight knowing they don't have to worry about their kids getting ear infections or bronchitis or something like that," Lauer said.