Dozens of uninsured residents of Montgomery County stand in line at the Department of Health and Human Services of the Silver Spring Center to sign up for insurance on March 26, 2014.
Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post/Getty

The Census changes aren’t quite what they appear to be

If you haven’t already receive an email today from your uncle who watches Fox News all day, it’s a safe bet his next missive will be about this.
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.
Kevin Drum foresees “a whole new set of conspiracy theories … about to take flight,” predicting this story is poised to become Fox News’ “new pet rock.”
And at first blush, it’s pretty easy to imagine what the talking points will be. Clearly, Affordable Care Act critics will say, that rascally White House changed the wording of the Census surveys in order to keep truth about “Obamacare” failures from the public.
The truth isn’t nearly as provocative: the new Census data will begin in 2013 (before ACA enrollment), not in 2014 (after ACA enrollment).
Sarah Kliff had a good piece on this.
…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.
Why make the change at all? To make the data more reliable, with greater specificity on what constitutes being “insured.” Indeed, the irony of the right’s inevitable complaints is that the Census Bureau’s changes may actually show a higher rate of America’s uninsured, not a lower one.
In other words, this new approach will produce results conservatives are more likely to enjoy.
There is no scandal here. We can see the manufactured outrage coming, but it is wrong.