The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association has had to pay $95,000 extra for medical checkups for volunteer fire and rescue personnel thus far this year, a county official said.
To save money, leaders of the association want to change the standard of how often physicals are required, said Becky Maginnis, the county's risk management administrator.
The suggestion is to require each volunteer to get a physical exam once every three years, regardless of his or her age, Maginnis said.
At present, the association goes by the standards recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, which sets firefighting standards across much of the nation.
Under those standards, older emergency workers are to have physical exams more frequently than younger ones. The standards say such exams "should be conducted every three years until age 30; every two years between ages 31 and 40; and every year after the age of 40," Maginnis said.
Selective Insurance Co. — the county's insurer — "coming into the (county's) program knew that the association was doing it by NFPA standards, which was fine by them because that's a higher standard," Maginnis said.
"But when push came to shove and the association began to realize the financial issues ... at some point they became aware that Selective's requirement was only (every) three years. That's when I heard that (association leaders) were going to change it to three," she said.
However, association members urged the leaders to hold off on that decision and let all the members vote on what to do, Maginnis said.
"I understand there will be a vote taken by the members of the association as to how they're going to structure the physicals — whether it's NFPA or every three years," she said.
Before the recent increase, Maginnis said, the association has been paying Health@Work a flat $60,000 a year for physicals for all volunteers the association approves.
Health@Work, an affiliate of Meritus Health, offers a range of occupational health services, including physicals, for employers and their employees.
Working with the county, the association has been pushing to get the volunteers checked since last December, when the county learned the price was more than doubling for workers' compensation insurance for its volunteer fire and rescue companies.
Facing a claim history more than 2 1/2 times the national average, the Washington County Board of Commissioners agreed to pay the higher premium. But they also mandated that the fire and rescue association try to rein in claims with mandatory physicals and other risk-management controls.
The 2011 workers' comp premium for the volunteer companies rose to $555,000 — a 128 percent increase over the 2010 premium of $243,731, Maginnis said at the time.
In return for the county paying such bills, the association for years has been paying the cost of the physicals.
As the call went out among the county's 27 volunteer fire and rescue companies, the number of physicals given and thus, the association's cost, has increased, she said.
"They have spent a total of $155,000 currently," Maginnis said.
Currently, 778 — or 73 percent — of the county's estimated 1,055 fire and emergency medical service volunteers are in compliance with new insurance requirements, Maginnis said.
The 73 percent is "acceptable to the insurance company at the moment, but it needs to be 100 percent at some point," Maginnis said.
No deadline for reaching 100 percent compliance has been set, she said.
It could be that the county's fire and rescue volunteers are nearer to 100 percent than the figures reflect.
The 27 percent who haven't been checked yet "may be made up of volunteers who are not active responders, and should come off the list" of 1,055 total, Maginnis said. "Or, they may have had physicals elsewhere but Health@Work has not reviewed them yet."