The Affordable Care Act defines a full-time worker as anyone who works 30 hours or more each week. That's a really important definition, as businesses are required to provide health insurance to all of their full-time employees.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) thinks this is also a bad definition: He's begun hearing from constituents whose employers have reduced their hours just below 30 per week, in order to dodge the employer mandate. On Wednesday, he introduced the Forty Hours is Full Time Act of 2013 with co-sponsor Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), which would - as the name implies - move the threshold for providing insurance up to 40 hours per week.
Donnelly supported the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when he was a legislator in the House. But he also sees the need for tweaks like this one, in order to make health reform work. We spoke Thursday afternoon about his new bill, whether any changes to the health law will pass Congress and how implementation is going in Indiana. What follows is a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Kliff: How did this definition of full time employees get on your radar?
Sen. Joe Donnelly: It was from businesses back in Indiana and from people in Indiana. Some of our folks who might be working 33 hours have told us they got cut back because of that. We’ve heard that from various folks around the state. And then people who came to visit the office, business owners, super markets, convenience stores, this is going to make it really difficult and that we should make it reflective of what is generally considered a full work week.
SK: And how did you start working with Sen. Collins to co-sponsor legislation on this issue?
JD: We saw that Sen. Collins had brought this up before. I went to her, and she’s a friend. I said that I think we can get working together to move the ball forward on this one.
SK: The definition of a full work week as 30 hours is part of the Affordable Care Act that you voted for. Is this an issue that came up when the law was being debated in Congress? If this is problem, why wasn't it brought up in the initial debate?
JD: It makes sense to change this. From Maine to California, every business agrees a work week is 40 hours. What we're trying to do is reflect the common sense we have on this in America. That's a fair number. When Susan and I talked about this, we both agreed on that.
This was not one of the primary issues we talked about [in the Congressional debate over health reform]. Even when I voted for it, I said, look, there are changes that need to be made. My promise was to try and do what's right for the country.
SK: I wanted to follow up on that idea of needing to make changes to the health-care law. There's been a lot of gridlock around moving tweaks to Obamacare through Congress. So how much optimism do you have that something like this can move forward?
JD: I would hope there is space for this. When Sen. Collins and I were talking, it was simply about this making sense. The only goal was to make the lives of Americans easier. The politics were not part of it. I think if we take the politics out of this, we can make this law better.
SK: Can Congress take the politics out of health reform?
JD: I know I can. I’m hoping that everybody else can too.
SK: From the perspective of House Republicans, the Affordable Care Act is a bad law. And anything they do to make it work more smoothly wouldn't be in their political interest. So why would they want to pass a piece of legislation like this?
JD: What we can do is be hopeful that when we took our oath of office, we pledged to what is right for the country and the people we represent. Looking at it that way, rather than in a political way, is the right thing to do. I would hope members of Congress aren't worried as House Republicans and House Democrats. If they do that, it should work.
SK: Moving forward, do you think the Affordable Care Act will need many other tweaks like this?
JD: I would think so. We've already seen the change to the 1099 reporting requirements. We've seen other suggestions as well for changes. As we move forward dealing with it, just like we do with any other piece of legislation, we're going to have to look at it and say if we do this, it might make it a little bit better. That's normal.
SK: What does it mean for the health-care law if those changes aren't made?
JD: I think all it means the law won’t be as effective as it could be. It’ll be a negative for our families.
SK: How do you see the rollout of the health-care law going at home in Indiana? I know the state government there hasn't been one of the more aggressive in implementation.
JD: I am in the state all the time. when I'm out there, whether it is to business or to individuals who I run into in the super market, I tell them all just call our office and a number of folks here their job is to try to answer every question, within a day or two. If our small businesses say I’m not sure, I tell them just to give us a call. We will find out the answer. That’s my job. I’m the hired help.