The White House had a major role in the new Current Population Survey (CPS) questions. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the new questionnaire. The OMB is now run by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, whom President Obama nominated recently to succeed outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
By Jay O’Callaghan | April 22, 2014
Obama announces Sylvia Mathews Burwell of OMB as Kathleen Sebelius’ HHS replacement to oversee ObamaCare.
The Obama administration has made major changes in a U.S. census survey, the Current Population Survey (CPS), so that it will make ObamaCare look better on the critical question of whether it is reducing the number of uninsured Americans. A New York Times report last week kicked off the latest controversy over how the Obama administration will do everything it can to save the controversial program including manipulating the numbers.
The Times, which described the Census Bureau as the “authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades,” reported that the changes will make “it difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall” just before the November election. “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. The new questions will cause a “break in series for the health insurance estimates” which will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act or ObamaCare.
In the test last year, the percentage of people without health insurance was 10.6 percent with the new questionnaire, compared with 12.5 percent using the old version. Also, “for reasons that are not clear, people were less likely to respond when interviewers used the new questionnaire.”
Census Bureau documents also said “it is coincidental and unfortunate timing” that the survey was overhauled just before major provisions of the health care law took effect. “Ideally,” it said, “the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data.”
The White House had a major role in the new questions. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the new questionnaire. The OMB is now run by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, whom President Obama nominated recently to succeed outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Her role in the survey changes could be a major issue in her Senate confirmation hearings.
According to American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain, a Resident Scholar in Economic Policy and former Census Bureau employee, the census survey would have been the first opportunity to show how many of the 7.5 million people who have signed up for ObamaCare are newly insured.
“The plan was to ask people through statistical surveys whether they had coverage in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc., and compare that to the number in 2012, 2011, 2010, etc. Using multiple years allows you to study the trend over time in health insurance coverage, which really is more important than any one year’s estimate.”
But this is now complicated “because the Census Bureau will change the questions they ask about health insurance in one of their flagship survey, the CPS. The changes to the CPS will make it very difficult to compare ObamaCare-affected years with the long series of previous years.”
Strain believes there is no conspiracy, pointing out that these changes were in the works long before ObamaCare and that there are other ways to measure the uninsured. But he states that “none of this is to say that the Census Bureau’s decision to change to a new methodology in the midst of ObamaCare’s rollout isn’t a dumb decision. It is. And Census should have known better. Either the new methodology should be delayed, or the old and the new methodologies should be employed concurrently to ensure comparability across years.”
Strain adds that “the process of crafting sound public policy requires excellent data. Economists, analysts, and government officials need the best information they can get, and that means the highest quality government statistics. It is crucial that the public trusts the federal statistical agencies, if for no other reason than to ensure the quality of the data being collected.”
He points out that the “Census knows this as well as any organization in the country. They should have employed that knowledge, known that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, and not changed the health insurance questions on the CPS in what is the most politically volatile year to do so in decades. It may happen that even a year from now suspicion will still cloud the numbers. If so, then everyone loses.”
Unfortunately this is not the first time the Census Bureau’s credibility has been seriously questioned. 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. In his latest report last week, Crudele reveals that “another source has come forward to claim that data falsification was more widespread” than his first report. He further notes that Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests he sent to the Bureau have been stonewalled.
The Census Bureau traditionally has operated as an independent agency within the U.S. Commerce Department, answering to the Commerce Secretary, though its director is appointed by the president. But that changed in 2009, when President Barack Obama during his first year in office moved the Census Bureau to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The proper role of what is often an overlooked but key agency will be a major issue before the public as both House and Senate Republicans have strongly questioned this change in this important census survey. Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-TX) has said that the House Government Reform Committee he chairs “will be thoroughly investigating this issue and demanding answers from Census officials on allegations that the Census Bureau is changing the wording of survey questions used to determine our nation’s annual report on health insurance coverage.”
U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), John Thune (R-SD), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) sent a letter to Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson urging the administration to continue asking the existing health insurance coverage questions in the Census Bureau’s annual survey, along with its planned new questions, for two years.
We can now add the ObamaCare-Census Bureau scandal to a litany of Obama administration scandals, including Fast and Furious, IRS Targeting of Conservatives, and the Benghazi cover-up.
Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.