The Census Bureau's overhaul of its annual survey so that it makes tracking the impact of Obamacare on Americans virtually impossible came under fire on Thursday by Republicans in both houses of Congress.
Two members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee opened an investigation of the changes by requesting documents from Census Bureau Director John Thompson.
Three top senators also demanded that Census ask both the old questions and the new ones on healthcare coverage for the next two years. The agency is to begin asking the new questions in September.
Citing news reports about the changes, oversight committee members Reps. Darrell Issa and Blake Farenthold charged that new data
"could be used in misleading arguments about the coverage impact of the Affordable Care Act."
They added that the bureau did not inform the panel of the survey's changes. The committee is the Census Bureau's authorizing panel in Congress.
"A two percent adjustment in the nationwide uninsured rate would represent a change in status for six million Americans," Issa and Farenthold said in their letter to Thompson.
Issa, of California, is the oversight committee's chairman. Farenthold, who represents Texas, is head of the panel's Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census.
“Numerous experts from across the political spectrum claim that the Census’ new measure will limit the effectiveness of the survey to measure the effects the Affordable Care Act has had on the number of people with health insurance over time," the representatives said.
"We have serious concerns about the timing of this revision given the purported input and approval of officials at the White House and [the Department of Health and Human Services] of these revamped survey questions."
The Office of Management and Budget, which gained jurisdiction over the Census Bureau in a 2009 move by President Barack Obama, approved the changes to its annual current population survey.
The bureau, created in 1903, is long considered the authority on health information — and Census officials have said that the new healthcare questions are so different that it will be very hard to compare the results with data from previous years.
"We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked," Brett O’Hara, chief of the Census Bureau's health statistics operation, told The New York Times.
The new survey includes a "total revision to health insurance questions" and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates on uninsured Americans, according to an internal report from the bureau quoted by the Times.
The changes include more detailed questions about whether people were offered insurance at work and whether they accepted it. If a worker does not have employer coverage, the survey asks why.
Several of the new questions were requested by HHS and the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
In their letter to Thompson, Issa and Farenthold requested all versions of the revised questions as well as "unredacted" communications among the various White House agencies on the changes from January 2010 to last month.
Meanwhile, the senators — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and John Thune of South Dakota — said that asking both old and new questions would ensure that Census not "conflate a change in measurement" regarding coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
"We always want the best statistical information, but the collection of only one year of comparable data is insufficient," they said in their letter to Thompson.
Hatch and Thune sit on the Senate Finance Committee, while Alexander is the ranking GOP member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
The senators also posed six questions, along with a request for documents, for Census to answer to "avoid the appearance of impropriety and the seeming intent to manipulate data."
These include whether public comments were solicited on the changes and what role the Obama administration had in influencing the changes.
Under the Constitution, the Census Bureau is charged with counting the nation's population every 10 years. Between the decades, it makes population estimates and projections.
Besides affecting how congressional districts are drawn, census data play a critical role in determining how more than $400 billion in federal and state funding is allocated every year for such services as public health, education, transportation, and neighborhood improvements.
"Census data influences decisions made from Main Street to Wall Street, in Congress and with the Federal Reserve," Farenthold told Newsmax in a statement on Tuesday. "Not to mention, the American people who look to, and trust, the data the government releases on our nation's unemployment, state of our economy, and health insurance coverage."
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