Hiding ObamaCare Data with the Census Bureau

How Obama is making long-term comparisons of the bureau's health care statistics impossible.

529047337In 2009, within the first few weeks of taking office President Obama, moved control of the Census Bureau from the office of the Commerce Secretary to the White House ahead of the 2010 Census. Republicans were irate, thinking it was an effort to politicize the 2010 headcount itself. Unfortunately, Republicans were thinking small. As the New York Times reveals, the Census Bureau "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.”

Not difficult. Virtually impossible:

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.

Expecting? The administration already tested the change last year. When interviewers asked people the old set of questions, the data revealed that 12.5 percent of Americans had no health insurance. When the new questions were asked, the percentage dropped to 10.6 percent. On the other side of the ledger, the percentage of people with private insurance increased in response to the new set of questions. Researchers further noted that the pattern remained similar for different age, race and ethnic groups.  

White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness tried to put a happy face on this overt manipulation, contending the questionnaire alterations would “make it easier to measure the impact of the Affordable Care Act because it will be possible to compare data from 2013 and 2014.” But other officials noted that this year’s data will not be available until 2015, and that the 2013/2014 data will not be directly comparable to years of previous data.

Another paper by the Census Bureau claimed that “it is coincidental and unfortunate timing” that the changes were put in place before ObamaCare became the law of the land. “Ideally the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data,” it stated.

Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle illuminates the real meaning of that statement, wondering, "[W]hy, dear God, oh, why, would you change [the data] in the one year in the entire history of the republic that it is most important for policy makers, researchers and voters to be able to compare the number of uninsured to those in prior years?” she asks.

The Times answers McArdle’s question:

The White House is always looking for evidence to show the benefits of the health law, which is an issue in many of this year’s midterm elections. The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the new questionnaire. But the decision to make fundamental changes in the survey was driven by technical experts at the Census Bureau, and members of Congress have not focused on it or suggested political motives.

As is too often the case, the Times offers its readers another calculated error of omission regarding the political reaction. "These reports do nothing but give more weight to Americans' level of general distrust in the Obama administration, especially after the president's failed promise that 'if you like your health insurance, you can keep it,’” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and the Census. "After unilaterally decreeing 22 changes to the health-care law, the administration may now have found a way to alter the basic facts," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said in a statement. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) agrees, noting that the changes in the data will make it "extraordinarily difficult to measure what effect ObamaCare has had on the health insurance market – just weeks before the midterm elections. If ObamaCare has been such a ‘success,' as its advocates claim, why are they so afraid of seeing this years’ health insurance survey results and comparing it to past years?”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) reached for the unreachable star. ”If the administration truly wants to know how many people have insurance today because of the health law, it will swiftly reverse course," he said in a statement. "Did the health law work to insure the uninsured? A simple check of a box could answer that question. Sadly, we may never know -- and the administration seems just fine with that.” 

When Fox News asked about the changes, administration officials stressed that at least one consistent year-to-year comparison was still available. The Incidental Economist’s Aaron Carroll reveals the calculated insincerity behind that statement. "Many, including me, have been using CPS data for a long time to track the numbers of uninsured,” he writes. "Yes, the questions are imperfect...But the standardization of them made it easier to track changes over time. And NOW is the time to be able to track changes to the uninsured. Is the ACA working? You think we might want to know that? Altering the questions right now so that we can’t measure what’s going on is terrible. If they were so bad they needed altering, a few years ago would have been better. Or, a few years from now. But right now? It’s killing me.”

McArdle agrees, noting that the change could have been made in 2012 or 2016, allowing for comparable data to be available during the all-important transition period between America’s old healthcare system and ObamaCare. It is during that transition period when millions of people had their policies cancelled and wholesale changes to benefit packages were made. It is precisely that data that would have given us the clearest picture of how well—or not—ObamaCare is working.

And now it will no longer be available.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson and other administration officials insist the changes have been years in the making. "The recent changes to the Current Population Survey's questions related to health insurance coverage is the culmination of 14 years of research and two national tests in 2010 and 2013 clearly showing the revised questions provide more precise measures of health insurance through improved respondent recall,” Thompson said in a statement. 

Thus we are supposed to believe that everything is above board. Maybe if this were the only bit of manipulation going on at the Census Bureau, one might be more sanguine about the timing of the change. Yet it is not. In a series of articles, New York Post reporter John Crudele has accused the Bureau of manipulating the unemployment statistics leading up to the 2012 election. The stats showed a substantial decline in unemployment, from 8.1 percent in August 2012 to 7.8 percent in September 2012. Crudele cited former Census Bureau data collector Julius Buckmon as his source, someone "who allegedly falsified surveys,” in the Bureau's Philadelphia office. 

In his latest report published yesterday, Crudele reveals that "another source has come forward to claim that data falsification was more widespread than just Philadelphia and that it continued even after Buckmon left in 2011.” Crudele further notes that Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests he sent to the Bureau have been stonewalled.

When the Times published their story on April 15, the White House had reported that 7.5 million people have signed up for ObamaCare and another 3 million have enrolled in Medicaid. Yesterday in yet another victory lap, Obama added another half million people to that total, contending that more than 8 million Americans have now signed up for ObamaCare. He took another shot at Republicans who “still can’t admit that the Affordable Care Act is working." But his administration still claims it is unable to determine how many of the people gaining coverage were previously uninsured, had policies canceled, or have actually paid for their coverage.

The Census Bureau’s revised data will be released just before the 2014 election. Vox senior editor Sarah Kliff insists the Bureau’s changes will result in "losing our best data source on Obamacare.” Those changes will be piled on top of all the other constitutionally-contemptuous changes Obama has made to the law, every one of which is designed to mitigate the damage to Democratic electoral prospects in 2014. This is how the administration and its leftist allies measure “success.”

On the other hand, a Fox poll released yesterday shows 61 percent of respondents saying Obama lies about significant issues “most of the time” or “some of the time.” And the most recent Rasmussen poll shows 58 percent of Americans still have an unfavorable view of ObamaCare. Perhaps Obama’s victory lap was premature.

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