Friday, September 14, 2012

A little wonky

This is a brief lesson in lying with statistics--to yourself.

The Census Bureau's report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage came out and the Heritage Foundation and Center for American Progress's Think Progress responded almost simultaneously, giving us an instructive picture in how reality gets its coloring.

To Heritage, the news is unambiguously bad:
Despite a small reduction in the uninsured by 1.4 million from 2010 to 2011, 48.6 million, or 15.7 percent of Americans, remain without health insurance.

Another area of disappointment comes from the number of uninsured young adults: 27.7 percent of the uninsured fall in this age group. While this group saw a decrease of 2 percent—partially due to Obamacare’s extension of coverage to dependents up to age 26—it is much less than President Obama and his Administration promised. In August, the President claimed, “Nearly 7 million young people have health insurance because they’re able to stay on their parents’ plans.”
But for CAP, it's terrific:
Thanks to Obamacare, the uninsured rate in the U.S. dropped in 2011 to 15.7 percent from 16.3 percent in 2010, and 1.4 million Americans have health insurance now who did not have coverage a year ago, according to data from the Census Bureau. 2011 was the first year in more than a decade in which the number of people with private health insurance remained steady. “Our main finding is coverage increased between 2010 and 2011,” said David Johnson, chief of the Census’s Chief, Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division.

A key factor that drove down the number of people without insurance — 48.6 million people last year compared to 50 million in 2010 — is a provision in the Affordable Care Act allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans up to age 26. A study in June estimated that 
6.6 million young adults have taken advantage of this regulation. About 40 percent of the drop in the uninsured rate for those 19-25, which feel the most of any age group, is because of young adults keeping their parents’ insurance coverage.
So is 1.4 million a big number or a small number? That would depend on how you look at it. Compared to 48.6 million, the number of Americans who still don't have health insurance, it's pretty small; but if you think of it as a down payment on the Affordable Care Act, when hardly any of the act's provisions are yet in place, it's not bad. And if you look at it as the first definitive change in the trendline that got started in 1987, when the statistics first began to be collected and the big number was 30 million, it's a pretty good sign.
Diagram of the Eye, Sloane 981, f. 68 (© The British Library) . From Medieval Fragments.
More seriously, perhaps, was President Obama lying about the number of 19-to-25s staying on their parents' plans? Is his seven million a rounding up of CAP's 6.6 million, and why doesn't Heritage know about the latter?

The reason Heritage doesn't know is that it isn't looking: they simply subtracted the 2011 number from the 2010 number to find how many fewer young adults were without insurance and got the "disappointing" 539,000. But this has no necessary relationship to the number of young people on their parents' plan, which includes people who were insured through their parents in 2010 and then stayed that way after turning 19 (or 23 if they were college students) in 2011; those who were insured by their employers or bought their own until the new law came into effect; and those who were just uninsured.

That was the number sought in a study by the Commonwealth Fund, which found that
between November 2010 and November 2011, an estimated 13.7 million young adults ages 19–25 stayed on or joined their parents' health plans, including 6.6 million who likely would not have been able to do so prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. 
Presumably some six million of those would have been insured in some other way--by an employer, on an individual policy, or on Medicaid--so that they aren't reflected in the Census Bureau figures on the newly ensured.

It's funny Heritage didn't notice, because they're worried about precisely that possibility:
as Heritage’s Drew Gonshorowski warns, there are unintended consequences from these “gains” in coverage: The net effect may hide the substitution effect. He writes, “In the case of insuring more young people, recent analysis shows that Obamacare encourages young adults to enroll in dependent coverage and drop their own coverage, causes employers to stop offering coverage, and will likely increase premiums.”
But they don't notice that it's already happened on a very large scale. And guess what? It certainly hasn't caused employers to stop offering coverage (why? because they have employees who are 26 years old and up, sucker) and it hasn't increased premiums. Of course. And ThinkProgress got it right.

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