U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat representing Arizona's Congressional District 2, sat down with editors and reporters from the Tucson Weekly, Inside Tucson Business and the Green Valley News in late December to discuss issues affecting Southern Arizona. Here is an edited and condensed portion of the interview, in which Barber discusses his recent votes on the Affordable Care Act.
You've come under criticism from some of your fellow Democrats because they say you've voted with Republicans on several bills that would delay the individual mandate to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
I don't think any of the three bills that I've voted for would gut the Affordable Care Act. I support the benefits that the Affordable Care Act brings and I've voted against repeal six different times in the time that I've been there. But I also believe that no bill is perfect and any bill of the size that this one is requires revision and amendment and changes. Social Security to Medicare to civil-rights laws to environmental laws—every single one of them has been revised over time. Unfortunately, there's no real common ground on that issue because we've got this intransigence: We've got one side saying "Repeal" and "Throw everything out" and some people on the other side saying, "Everything's great, leave it alone." I find myself in the middle, saying there are some things about the legislation that need to be reformed. But we need to keep the benefits, and the whole idea of throwing the baby out with the bathwater doesn't appeal to me at all. When I think about the people who have called our office—the seniors who no longer have to pay as much for medications, the kids and adults who have a pre-existing condition that doesn't bar them from getting health care, the people who no longer have to worry about a lifetime cap on their medical costs, the young adults who can stay on their parents' insurance until they are 26—all of those things are really good. But there are a handful of things about the law that could be changed. To your question specifically: Back in July of (last) year, when the president determined that he would postpone the penalties for businesses for one year, we had a bill on the floor that essentially endorsed that, and I voted for it. In the same sequence, we had a bill that did the same thing for individuals. My view was that if you're going to do this for corporations, you ought to do it for individuals and you ought to treat people fairly. That has been misinterpreted—sometimes in the press and sometimes by people who are concerned about it—that I don't believe in the individual mandate or that I'm for throwing the whole thing out. It's really postponing the penalty. Any individual who wants to sign up for Affordable Care Act can do so, once the website is working. The issue of the individual penalty came up again (in late September) as an amendment to the bill that would have kept the government open. Having voted for it once, I certainly didn't feel anything differently about it and I was going to vote for it again. But in that same vote, we also had a provision that took away the special deal that we as members of Congress get as part of the Affordable Care Act. I don't think we should be getting a special deal. I don't think we should be getting a lot of the perks we get as members. I think it sets us apart from the people we represent and it doesn't sit well with me, so whenever I have a chance to take away or prevent perks that we get, I'm going to take it. ... On the (November vote in favor of the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Upton), it was basically the same decision that the president had made to ask insurance companies to re-sign people after they canceled policies. The onerous part of that, to some people, is that is also allowed new people to sign up for what some people called "junk policies." Again, I voted for the first part of that, but you don't get to do separate votes—you vote for the whole bill or for none.
Some people did have a problem with the idea that you'd continue to allow the sale of the so-called junk policies.
But you know, if the website had been working—and it looks like it's working a lot better know—we wouldn't be in this fix.
You still would have had insurance companies canceling policies that didn't meet the ACA standard.
But people had not been able to go online right away and find out what the alternatives were, and now they're beginning to do it with very little time because the closing date for Jan. 1 signup is Dec. 23. I really felt we put a lot of people in jeopardy. I had people calling my office just freaking out. This guy called and he said he had cancer and his policy was canceled and he also had a disabled child. We said we would help him and he was so mad he couldn't even take the help. Those kinds of stories are the real impact of the insurance companies and what people perceive as the misinformation—or however you want to describe it—that the president gave about not having to lose your policy. It should have never been said, because anyone realistically looking at the changes we were going to expect could have said that with a straight face. So what are we going to do about it? For me, it was a matter of standing up for the people who called my office, to say that I'm going try to find some way to get you back your policy until you can look on the website and get yourself a better one.
Sometime in September or October, you're going to have to sit down with a Republican opponent in a debate and they're going to hammer you on the Affordable Care Act and you're going to have to defend your support of it. So what is your defense?
The Affordable Care Act allows millions of people who have never had insurance to get it for the first time. It's important that every American have access to affordable health care, and while there are problems with the bill, there are many more benefits and I'm going to work on fixing the problems.