Obama’s New Claim That 30 Million 'Cannot' Get Health Insurance Not Supported by Census Bureau

September 21, 2009 - 4:59 PM
President Barack Obama, in his Sept. 9 speech to Congress, unveiled a new statistic, saying that  30 million Americans "cannot" get health insurance.  The new number has received prime billing in Obama's renewed push to save his floundering health care restructuring initiative.
(CNSNews.com) - In his Sept. 9 speech to Congress, President Barack Obama unveiled a new claim that 30 million Americans “cannot” get health insurance, but this statistic is not supported by the government's latest definitive data produced by the Census Bureau on Americans lacking health insurance.

In his speech to Congress, Obama said, “There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage” – presumably taking into account conservative critics’ observation that Obama's earlier claims that 46 million Americans lacked health insurance was contradicted by Census Bureau data that indicated that more than 9 million of that number were not in fact U.S. citizens.
 
In a Sept. 10 blog posting, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Peter Orszag explained the president's new claim that 30 million Americans "cannot" get insurance, saying that the figure was based based on Census Bureau data.

That study, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2008,” was released Sept. 10 as part of the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS).
 
“With the two different numbers, there has been some confusion as to which is accurate,” Orszag wrote. “Well, both are--and the President’s version is more focused on the relevant target population for health reform since it excludes unauthorized aliens.
 
“The Census report indicates that of the 46 million uninsured individuals, 34 million were native born and 2.8 million naturalized citizens. The report thus shows that there were 36.8 million uninsured U.S. citizens (native born and naturalized) in 2008.”
 
Orszag explained that Obama was merely playing it safe and using a lower-than-reality figure in his speech.
 
“To be conservative, the President thus stated that ‘more than 30 million American citizens’ cannot get coverage.”
 
While that explanation accounts for why Obama used the figure of “30 million," it does not account for why he claimed those 30 million "cannot" get insurance coverage.
 
The Census Bureau report cited by Orszag does not contain any data about why people don’t have health insurance. It does not distinguish between people who cannot get health insurance and people who freely decide not to get it. The only question it asks is whether or not a person had health insurance during the previous year.
 
If someone had coverage for part or all of the year, the Census Bureau counted them as “insured”--if they didn’t, they were counted as “uninsured.”
 
The Census Bureau also says that insurance coverage is often underreported, with people more likely to answer “no” if they are currently without coverage even if they were covered for part of the previous year--meaning they should have answered “yes.”
 
“[H]ealth insurance coverage is underreported in the CPS ASEC for a variety of reasons,” the Census Bureau noted. “For example, some people may report their insurance coverage status at the time of their interview rather than their coverage status during the previous calendar year.”
 
In fact, a spokesperson in the Census Bureau’s health insurance division told CNSNews.com that there is nothing in the health insurance report that has anything to do with why people are uninsured.
 
“There isn’t. The survey that that report is based on, the Current Population Survey, doesn’t ask any questions about why [people lack coverage]. We really don’t ask any questions about why.”