To appreciate why U.S. Representative Scott Peters has twice broken with his Democratic colleagues and voted to roll back parts of Obamacare, it’s helpful to know that his San Diego-area district is teeming with voters who have reasons to be angry about the law.
The district has one of the nation’s highest proportions of residents who get health insurance through individual policies, instead of from an employer, and many have learned their policies are being canceled because they don’t comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Walter Niles is one of them. The self-employed biotechnology consultant with a doctorate in neuroscience was notified in September that his policy was being canceled. The coverage offered through Covered California, his state’s new insurance exchange, has left him unsatisfied.
“I’m paying more and getting less,” said Niles, 59, who leans Republican yet also says he voted twice for President Barack Obama. “It is fundamentally a worse plan.”
The political predicament for Peters, who was elected in 2012 with 51 percent of the vote, illustrates the complicated path ahead for Democrats as they approach the 2014 midterms amid a debilitating Obamacare rollout. Democrats need to gain a net of 17 seats to retake House control, and holding such swing seats as California’s 52nd District are vital to their mission.
Yet Peters, 55, and other House Democrats represent more than a third of the districts with above-average proportions of residents who get health insurance through individual policies, Census Bureau data compiled by Bloomberg shows.
Republicans, who represent the remaining two-thirds of districts with higher levels, have been the law’s biggest critics, putting them in sync and sympathy with their constituents who are also complaining about lost coverage.
About 16 million Americans -- roughly 5 percent of the population -- get health insurance through individual policies, the census data show. Though a relatively small segment of the population, their stories of insurance uncertainty draw media attention.
Peters has heard “a lot in the last few weeks about these individual stories of people who for one reason or another have lost the coverage that they thought they were entitled to keep and I think it’s very unfortunate that they had the impression that they could keep it and in fact they couldn’t,” he said in an interview.
Of the 435 House seats, there are 186 districts with direct-purchase proportions above the national average of roughly 5 percent, according to census data. Of those, Democrats hold 67, or 36 percent.
The proportion of residents who purchase their insurance on the individual market varies widely across all congressional districts. Democratic Representative Henry Waxman’s Los Angeles-area seat leads the nation, with almost 17 percent of residents getting their insurance that way, the census data show. At the opposite end is a Houston-area district represented by Democratic Representative Gene Green, where just 1.4 percent of residents purchase their insurance on the individual market.
Waxman’s district is dominated by entertainment industry workers, including self-employed actors, writers and craftsmen, as well as technology companies including DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite-TV operator. Green’s is more than three-quarters Hispanic and heavily Democratic, like Waxman’s.
Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California-based nonprofit that studies health care, called the individual market before Obamacare “totally dysfunctional” because of sudden price increases and policies that often lacked depth.
“As we move beyond the cancellation story, the bigger question is what is the mix of winners and losers in the individual market,” he said. “When you have an even small number of losers, they make headlines.”
Another resident of Peters’s district, Edie Littlefield Sundby, became the subject of national news coverage after she wrote an opinion piece for the Nov. 4 edition of the Wall Street Journal about the cancellation of her coverage amid an almost seven-year battle with gallbladder cancer.
Republicans have seized on such stories and highlighted the contradiction of Obama’s pledge that people who liked their existing coverage would be able keep it.
Niles, who lives in the coastal community of La Jolla in Peters’s district, joined the California Farm Bureau Federation around 2004 to gain access to a group plan, though his work has nothing to do with farming.
A single man, Niles said his monthly premium will go from $367 to $507, even though he sees the coverage as less comprehensive and flexible. His higher income precludes him from getting any government subsidy for the new insurance.
At roughly 1 in 10 -- double the national average -- the district that Peters represents ranks in the top 10 nationally for the proportion of residents who purchase their coverage directly from insurance companies, the data show.
It’s an area heavy with military operations and self-employed entrepreneurs and small-business owners as well as the headquarters for Qualcomm Inc., the largest maker of chips for smartphones.
Peters is one of two Democrats facing re-election battles who have already been attacked over Obamacare in advertisements paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a national small-government group funded in part by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch.
The ads ran in October and November on broadcast and cable television, AFP said. It urged residents to call Peters’s office to tell him “Washington can do better” than Obamacare.
“What if later, bigger glitches prevent my family’s access to care, or I can’t get the surgery my doctor thinks I need because of some policy in Washington?” a woman’s voice asks in the spot. “They passed it without knowing everything in it. Now some promises -- keeping our doctors and plans, lower costs -- are broken.”
Peters was among 39 Democrats who broke from their party to rebuke the White House by supporting a Republican bill in November that sought to revise the health law. He was also among 17 Democrats who voted Sept. 28 on a measure that would have repealed a medical device tax established in the law.
“People understand that I came in after the law was passed,” Peters said. “I’ve clearly shown that I’m independent and I’m looking out for whatever I can do to make the law work.”
At least three Republicans have announced their intentions to compete for their party’s nomination and challenge him in the 2014 election. They are former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, former Marine Corps officer Kirk Jorgensen and surgeon Fred Simon.
Peters played down the political risk he faces by being from the party that passed Obamacare, saying the issue will be less heated next November when he’s on the ballot. He called it a “political side show” at a time when constituents are most concerned about jobs and the economy.