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MPP Alumna Guides Implementation of Obamacare in New York

November 10, 2016

by Adam Beyer

Sonia Sekhar MPP’14 knows the Affordable Care Act like the back of her hand. She has to – it’s her job on the team that implements the law in New York.

Sekhar is director of policy and planning for New York State of Health, the state’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Based in New York City, she reviews state and federal government policies, analyzes data about how subscribers are using their policies, and finds the best ways to use data to target education and outreach activities. Her most important goal is to increase the number of insured New Yorkers across the state.

Her interest in health policy began when she was a Barnard sophomore volunteering at Harlem Hospital, working to connect low-income patients and their families with a wide range of public resources. That experience had a profound influence on her career trajectory.

“Since then, my eyes have opened to the policy dimensions of all these public services people really depend on. I wanted to be in a space where I could have more of an impact,” she said.

Sonia SekharAfter earning her BA in economics and history at Barnard College, Sekhar held a number of health policy positions at the Center for American Progress, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and the White House.

Sekhar spent two years working in the White House aiding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. She worked closely with the communication staffers to help explain complicated aspects of the policy to the public and track the populations the law was intended to serve.  

During grad school, her summer internship with Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health exchange, provided an on-the-ground perspective on the Act’s implementation.

The decision to return to graduate school was not easy. Her job at the White House provided so many daily learning experiences. However, she realized there were skills she lacked.

“I wanted to up my game, especially in the quantitative space,” Sekhar said. “I sought out schools with a greater quantitative focus. That’s how Duke stood out to me.”

During her time at Sanford, she said her statistical analysis classes with Associate Professor Elizabeth Ananat were extremely valuable.

“I know quantitative classes can be scary, but I think those are some of the strongest skills you can bring to a policy workplace,” she said. “You automatically become an asset to a team if you have those skills.”

Sekhar chose to complete the MPP program’s Health Policy concentration. As she works to serve New York with a “data-driven” approach, she uses her newly strengthened quantitative analysis skills every day.

As the impact of the president’s health care law is beginning to be seen, Sekhar said the major issues in the field will continue to be managing costs and ensuring that health networks have strong provider options for consumers.

Sekhar also encouraged young professionals to develop their negotiation skills as they navigate the terms of first jobs. She attributed hers to a Sanford Career Center workshop.

“I wish I had pushed even harder,” she said. “Those initial terms can really follow you through your career.”

Although originally from the D.C. area, her current work in New York City echoes her initial health policy involvement at Harlem Hospital.

“I’ve gone from working in a community in New York City helping nearly a hundred families a year, to working for the state’s Marketplace where now nearly 3 million New Yorkers, or 15 percent of the state’s population, get their health insurance coverage,” she said. “It’s very gratifying.”