Manipulating Obamacare Stats: The Census Bureau's Suspect Timing

Posted: Apr 15, 2014 1:28 PM

In her post this morning, Carol linked to a New York Times story describing the US Census Bureau's ridiculous decision to change its formula for determining health coverage rates in America. "Ridiculous" not because it's out of bounds to overhaul methodology on principle, but because after three decades, they're implementing this shift at the exact moment we need a consistent baseline off of which to measure the impact of Obamacare. The brand new survey questions will unquestionably "reveal" a dramatic decrease in the uninsured population, bureau experts say, which will deliver Democrats a super handy talking point. And oh-by-the-way, the artificially improved numbers will be released...this fall:

The Census Bureau, the authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades, is changing its annual survey so thoroughly that it will be difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall, census officials said. The changes are intended to improve the accuracy of the survey, being conducted this month in interviews with tens of thousands of households around the country. But the new questions are so different that the findings will not be comparable, the officials said. An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument. “We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” said Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau. With the new questions, “it is likely that the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in series for the health insurance estimates,” says another agency document describing the changes. This “break in trend” will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act, it said.

Allow me to paint you a picture: The Census Bureau releases its new figures in September, just a few weeks out from a major election. Per the bureaucrat-in-chief over at Census, the fresh stats on uninsured Americans will be "much lower," due to the heavily revised question wording. The wonks will make this abundantly clear, admonishing one another that the new and old data are like apples and oranges. Plus, they'll add, the new numbers don't even include the post-Obamacare implementation data from early 2014, so any attempt to trumpet the results as a triumph for the Affordable Care Act will be especially inapt. Even some elements of the center-Left smart set have begun grumbling about the indefensible timing of these methodological alterations:

Democrats, famously allergic to nuance when the political moment demands a cudgel, will shout from the rooftops about the "stunning" improvement in uninsured rates. Obamacare is working! They'll elide the crucial caveats mentioned above, plugging the exciting news into television ads, talking points and stump speeches. Sure, they'll receive multiple Pinocchios and "mostly false" ratings from fact-checkers, but when has that ever stopped them? The media's push-back will mostly be pro forma. When Republicans move to debunk the figures, Democrats will deride them as bitter and anti-science. They're from the non-partisan Census Bureau, after all. Josh Barro calls the move "insane," asking why this sea change couldn't have waited until, say, any other year. That's a serious question. If the need for this adjustment was so glaring, why wasn't it undertaken years ago? And considering the sensitive timing, why couldn't it have been pushed back for a few years? Whether they'll admit it or not (they won't), this amounts to a massive bureaucratic gift to Democrats, akin to "home cooking" officiating in sports. A White House official tweeted at me to downplay the significance of these developments, pooh-poohing the notion that census chicanery is a major "political flashpoint:"

Lee implies that this is all no biggie. Fine. Let's see if Congressional Democrats and his bosses will refrain from making political hay out of facile "official" statistics that make them look good. Color me intensely skeptical, especially in light of this White House's routine eagerness to brag about dramatically inflated Obamacare "enrollment" numbers. Another wrinkle to this: Obama and company regularly cited the loftiest (misleading) numbers possible when discussing the uninsured while selling this law, based on the Census Bureau's previous method. (Asking Americans if they'd been insured over the previous year turns up a lot of false negatives, it turns out, so the problem is being rectified). As such, it seems likely that Team O will end up benefiting politically from both frames of reference, the latter of which is being introduced just in the nick of time. Meanwhile, Ezra Klein is already "Voxplaining" that because the forthcoming data will only measure 2013 stats, next year's release will allow for an apples-to-apples comparison regarding Obamacare. That's true to some extent, but 30 years of stable data under one methodology would be a much more useful "control" set to examine, rather than just one year of recently-modified data. I'll leave you with this flashback, via John Ekdahl: