Politics

Census: The White House Had Nothing To Do With The Timing Of New Insurance Survey

“We are an independent statistical agency,” says a top Census official.

Mike Segar / Reuters / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A top U.S. Census Bureau official said Tuesday that the White House had nothing to do with the timing of major changes to a Census survey of uninsured Americans critics warn could make it difficult to measure Obamacare’s success.

“We are an independent statistical agency. We are not influenced by any partisan area,” said a top Census official, who asked not to be named. “We take it very seriously. We only have three political appointees within the Census Bureau.”

The official is not among the political appointees to the Census Bureau. Asked directly if the White House had anything to do with the changes to the health care survey or timing of the new survey questions, the official said no.

“We’ve been talking about this way before the ACA was an idea,” the official said.

Republicans and critics of Obamacare cried foul Tuesday when the changes to the survey were announced.

In a statement Tuesday, Census Bureau Director John Thompson noted the changes to the annual Current Population Survey have been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The recent changes to the Current Population Survey’s questions related to health insurance coverage is the culmination of 14 years of research and two national tests in 2010 and 2013 clearly showing the revised questions provide more precise measures of health insurance through improved respondent recall,” he said.

The Congressional Budget Office called for changes to the Census’ Current Population survey as early as 2003. Though changes to the survey — which is designed to track the number of Americans who do not have insurance — are so significant that it will be basically impossible to compare data from before the changes to after, the administration argued Tuesday that the new data came in time to properly measure the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the uninsured population.

“The main point here is that these changes will actually make it easier to measure the impact of the ACA, since we will have an improved baseline for 2013, which we can use to see changes from 2013 to 2014,” an administration official said.

In his official statement, Thompson agreed with that assessment.

“The revised questions were implemented in the Current Population Survey beginning in February 2014 in time for data collection covering calendar year 2013, and thus will provide a more accurate baseline for assessments of changes in insurance coverage, including that of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

The Obama White House did play some role in crafting new survey questions. The New York Times reported Tuesday that “the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the new questionnaire.”

The Census official said the White House involvement was a standard part of the survey revision process and noted that Census’ September 2013 Federal Register post announcing the new questions were coming allowed public comment from anyone. The new questions were tested in 2013 and will permanently replace the old questions this year.

The changes were based on research that began far before President Obama came into office, the Census official said.

“Whenever we’re making any kind of question changes at all, we research the heck out of it,” the official said. “Because slight changes in the wording of a question can have great impact on how it’s answered.”

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Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact this reporter at evan@buzzfeed.com
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