Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Health Insurance Statistics Problem

There's a reason why economists are invited to testify before Congress and fêted at White House events while demographers are relegated to a warren of offices in the basements of beltway buildings. Economists are Big Picture people. They get it. Demographers are spreadsheet people. They don't.

The demographer problem explains why the "technicians" at the Census Bureau decided now was the time to introduce a new way to measure health insurance coverage—just as the Affordable Care Act goes into effect, just as the statistics collected by Gallup, Rand, the Urban Institute, and other organizations begin to show a jump in health insurance coverage. The Census Bureau's health insurance estimates for 2013 and onward will not be comparable with 2012 and earlier. Those crazy demographers.

Yes, yes, demographers have their reasons. The director of the Census Bureau explained their reasons after the news broke in the New York Times—the years of research, the tests, the results. Too bad that during all those years none of the technicians looked up from their spreadsheets long enough to see the Big Picture—the politics, the media, the nation's need for a story.

"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," explained the New York Times. Improved methodology is important, demographers would argue, but sometimes the Big Picture is even more important.

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