Diana DeGette's push for temporary-firefighter insurance gains a big ally: The President

Wildfire season -- which has included several massive Colorado blazes already this year -- puts thousands of seasonal firefighters to work. But because many have temporary status, they aren't eligible for federal health insurance -- a concern Representative Diana DeGette hoped to address in a new bill.

But just hours after she officially introduced the legislation, news broke that her effort has critical support from President Barack Obama, who is directing federal officials to give wildland firefighters access to health insurance.

"They are on the frontline fighting next to...state and local employees and also contract employees, all of whom have insurance," DeGette says. "It just seems inequitable that we'd have people fighting fires and protecting our community who don't have...insurance."

Apparently, the President -- who got a big political boost last month when the Supreme Court largely upheld his signature health-care plan -- seems to agree.

As reported by the Denver Post , Obama is issuing a directive that will allow the tens of thousands of firefighters who are not full-time U.S. Forest Service employees to purchase federal health insurance coverage in the "near future."

There are around 15,000 wildland firefighters on the federal payroll this season, and 8,000 or so are considered "temporary" -- and thus unable to get health insurance, the AP reports.

"When you add up the overtime, they are working a lot more than just part-time," DeGette says.

Page down to read more of our interview with Representative Diana DeGette. The President's move should push the congresswoman's effort forward a lot faster. Before the announcement, she'd been hoping her bill would pass soon enough to help those fighting wildfires to receive benefits this summer.

Daily Kos, a liberal blog, features a petition urging Congress to pass legislation that would make these temporary firefighters eligible for federal insurance. At this writing, the petition has more than 45,000 signatures.

According to DeGette's office, the temporary firefighters may end up working as many as 850 hours to contain the fires, but the hours don't count toward their eligibility for benefits. And the difficult environment that they work in can be linked to chronic pulmonary diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and abnormal lung function.

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"We're saying we are going to treat you like what you essentially are -- important, permanent employees," DeGette says. "These are very dangerous conditions that are physically demanding. These are people who just need to get insurance."

More from our Politics archive: "Photos, videos: Mitt Romney in Colorado calls Obama "outsourcer in chief""

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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