The Most Transparent Administration in History, Really Isn’t

Are we honestly supposed to believe that there weren’t ulterior motives behind this move?

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.

A major goal of the law is to increase the number of people with health insurance. The White House reported that 7.5 million people signed up for private health plans on the new insurance exchanges and that enrollment in Medicaid increased by three million since October. But the administration has been unable to say how many of the people gaining coverage were previously uninsured or had policies canceled, so the net increase in coverage is unclear.

Health policy experts and politicians had been assuming that the Census Bureau would help answer those questions when it issued its report on income, poverty and health insurance, based on the Current Population Survey. The annual report shows the number of people with various kinds of health insurance and the number of uninsured for the nation and for each state.

The story goes on to indicate that according to Gallup polls, more of the uninsured are getting covered as a consequence of Obamacare. But the best way to verify this is through census information. And now–conveniently?–we can’t.

Understandably, Megan McArdle is gobsmacked. And then some:

I’m speechless. Shocked. Stunned. Horrified. Befuddled. Aghast, appalled, thunderstruck, perplexed, baffled, bewildered and dumbfounded. It’s not that I am opposed to the changes: Everyone understands that the census reports probably overstate the true number of the uninsured, because the number they report is supposed to be “people who lacked insurance for the entire previous year,” but people tend to answer with their insurance status right now.

But why, dear God, oh, why, would you change it 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? The answers would seem to range from “total incompetence on the part of every level of this administration” to something worse.

[. . .]

Sarah Kliff of Vox says we shouldn’t freak out, because these are the numbers that the census collects for 2013, so the change is actually giving us a good baseline. But I’m afraid I’m not so sanguine. As Aaron Carroll says: “It’s actually helpful to have a trend to measure, not a pre-post 2013/2014. This still sucks.”

I am sure that we will be getting the “move along, nothing to see here” speeches from the administration and its partisans any moment now. Just once, can we ignore those speeches and insist on actual transparency, instead of the pretend variety that we have been getting since January 20, 2009?