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Maria Polyakova tackles shifting dynamics of health-insurance industry

Many people dread dealing with health insurance. Choosing the right plan, navigating benefits and understanding premiums, copays and deductibles can leave you frustrated and confused. Even in economic research, health insurance markets pose some of the most challenging questions.

But Maria Polyakova, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research and core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy, is motivated to find the answers.

Intrigued by the shifting dynamics of the industry and inspired partly by her own experience of finding health care coverage during graduate school, Polyakova has joined a small group of health economists who are at the forefront of examining the increasing complexities surrounding the provision of medical insurance.

Changes under the Affordable Care Act have deepened the connection between public and private players, Polyakova says. There’s a rise in health care plans that are publicly funded but privately run. And many people using public plans, like Medicare, are supplementing their coverage with private add-on insurance.

The intertwined relationship raises a host of policy challenges, which Polyakova outlines in this detailed policy brief.

“We're moving toward this world where we think competition in health insurance is good because that somehow increases efficiencies and provides consumers with choices that they like,” Polyakova says. “But on the other hand, there has been a lot of debate on whether health insurance is the right place to have choice.”

Polyakova, an assistant professor of health research and policy at the School of Medicine, joined Stanford in 2014. Her ongoing economic research looks at the impact of government policies in social insurance  on consumer behavior, insurer behavior and market outcomes, including risk protection and redistribution.

By investigating the design of health insurance systems, Polyakova’s work could inform policymakers on the extent the government should facilitate competition among insurers that are providing social insurance benefits, or the steps public and private insurers can take to reduce risks and costs for consumers. Her early forays have gained recognition.

For her doctoral thesis on Medicare Part D — the prescription drug component of the federal health insurance program — Polyakova won the 2015 Ernst-Meyer Prize, which recognizes original research about risk and health insurance economics. She also received the John Heinz Dissertation Award from the National Academy of Social Insurance in 2015.

Her findings included evidence of substantial inertia among enrollees, despite significant changes in about 40 plans under Medicare Part D.

“If no one actually ever reacts to changes in products,” Polyakova says, “it could defeat the purpose of having competition.”

Polyakova continues to drill into details where answers may lie. Her empirical research in progress ranges from examining new ways of calculating risk to the effects of word choice in insurance plan descriptions.

“Policies are labeled silver, gold, platinum — theoretically to simplify the plans. But in reality, those simplifications may lead people to choose plans that are not the best for them,” she says. “Assessing the implications of their choices for the overall efficiency of the health insurance system is tricky”

The health care system appeared much more straightforward in Germany, where she worked for a year after graduating in 2008 from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics.

Then while attending graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Polyakova went through the hassles of figuring out the health insurance system and how insurers reimburse medical providers. She recalls thinking, “Why is this so complicated?”

Polyakova turned her focus to health economics after taking some courses with MIT Professor Amy Finkelstein, a pioneer in the field who became Polyakova’s primary advisor.

“It was very contagious,” Polyakova says.