Monday, September 1, 2014

Don't freak out about the changes to the Census yet

The Census is overhauling the way it measures who has health insurance coverage. The new measures show more people with coverage than the old measures. The move, reported Tuesday by the New York Times, led to quick outcry that the Obama administration was obscuring crucial data that would be used to measure the Affordable Care Act's reach — or, worse, juking the data to make Obamacare look better.

It might not be time to freak out quite yet: What's being missed here is that the Obama administration will use the new survey questions to collect data for 2013, the year prior to Obamacare's health insurance expansion, a senior administration official says.

The Census Bureau reports the health insurance rate with a one-year delay; in September 2013, for example, the agency reported the percent of Americans without coverage in 2012. It will most likely report the uninsured rate for 2013 sometime this coming fall.

In other words: The survey will make it difficult to compare the uninsured rate for 2012, the last year for the old questions, and 2013, the first year for the new questions. But making the change now means that 2013 and 2014 – the year before and after Obamacare's big programs started – are using the same question set.

Census officials told the Times that the changes will make the survey a more accurate measure of who actually has health insurance coverage. The new survey questions are expected to show a higher uninsured rate. In a test last year, they found that 10.6 percent of Americans said they did not have health insurance when using the new questions – compared to 12.5 percent when people were surveyed with the old ones.

Census officials did have at least some concerns about changing the measurement of the uninsured rate at this moment. In a memo obtained by the Times, it was described as "it is coincidental and unfortunate timing."

"Ideally," the same memo says, "the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data."

It's worth noting that the Census numbers are not the only measure of how many Americans are uninsured. Gallup, for instance, also surveys this question, and some wonks prefer their methods anyway:

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