The Census Bureau Picked a Bad Time to Change How It Counts the Uninsured

Arit John
The Census Bureau Picked a Bad Time to Change How It Counts the Uninsured

This is the kind of announcement every Obamacare enrollment truther has been waiting for — the Census Bureau is changing the questions it asks about health insurance, to the point that the data won't be comparable to past years, according to the New York Times. An Obama administration official told Vox's Sarah Kliff that this will affect census data starting with the 2013 data released this fall, meaning we'll have one year of pre-Obamacare data with the new questions. Still, the Census Bureau said “it is coincidental and unfortunate timing” that the new questions are lining up so closely to the start of the health care law. 

Census officials said it will be difficult to determine how much of the change is attributable to Obamacare. That change will likely be a lower number of uninsured. “We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau, told the Times.

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Given the timing — the new questions will be asked this month — health writers and Obamacare detractors are equally upset. "Indefensible," wrote Town Hall's Guy Benson, and several other commenters will likely spin this as cooking the books. Policy writers acknowledge that the questions on health insurance questions on the survey weren't perfect. The old survey asked if a person had any kind of insurance at any point during the year, and some people forgot to mention insurance they'd had earlier. The new survey asks users if they have insurance now. Still, the timing is just really bad. "Altering the questions right now so that we can’t measure what’s going on is terrible," writes Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist. "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?"

And while this change makes it harder to determine long-term trends in uninsured data, the new questions will capture 2013's numbers. Again, we'll have one year of pre-Obamacare census data with the new questions to compare to future years. And, as the Kaiser Family Foundation's Larry Levitt pointed out, there are other surveys. "The Health Interview Survey will still be able to measure the change in the uninsured," he tweeted. In other words, this isn't quite as bad as it seems. 

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