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On the Third Hand: Data

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A reader recently posted an angry comment about one of my articles about survey data put out by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP).

I wrote about how the kinds of big and midsize employers that tend to participate in IFEBP surveys said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is already affecting their health plan costs and benefits strategies.

A reader begged for me to do a better job of covering the effects of a bizarre PPACA phenomenon — the fact that the federal government is now encouraging employers to hate older workers, by pushing employer plans to charge more for coverage for older workers, and less for coverage for younger workers.

The reader also begged for more coverage of how the PPACA metal-level system has made some useful, popular plan designs disappear.

The health insurance world is big, and I’m small. I have to run around like a hamster in a hamster wheel to keep up with all of the seemingly huge news hitting me on my head. It’s hard for me to find the time to conduct great, in-depth surveys, or the time or the expertise to do analyses of giant spreadsheets full of Big Data. I depend heavily on universities, government agencies, consulting firms and stand-alone research centers (“think tanks”) to send me survey reports, and to understand Big Data well enough to analyze it for me, or to put it into Little Spreadsheets with headers I understand.

What’s striking about PPACA World is that it’s still hard to get anything that even looks like data about how PPACA is actually working.

Opponents tend to send me analyses about how terrible PPACA is.

Supporters still send predictions about what PPACA will do, or about what PPACA provisions, plans and plan issuers have promised to do.

Getting information about what PPACA has already cost, or how well (or how poorly) PPACA has delivered on the promises made is shockingly hard.

On the one hand, the reality may be that the enemies of PPACA are so ferocious that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has no practical alternative to staying as quiet as possible, just to keep it alive.

On the other hand, HHS makes the lack of data on simple matters, such as Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) enrollment, look even more awful by having the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) put out PPACA “reports” that are really fancy press releases designed to show how wonderful PPACA is. (But are not, from my perspective, as seemingly hype-free as the earnings releases the publicly traded health insurers issue every quarter.)

On the third hand, I’ve gotten so used to the lack even of anything that looks like good data that I’m now grateful when I see something that looks like good data.

Give me a table of PPACA numbers with a margin of error note and no references to Obama’s origins in the bowels of Hell or the delicious chickens about to come out of every PPPACA essential health benefits pot, and I’m happy.

This is what HHS implementation of PPACA has done to me: Made me wish HHS cared enough to even pretend to be telling me what’s actually happening.

See also: On the Third Hand: Regtap secrets