Big Brains podcast examines truths and myths about U.S. health care system

Health economist Katherine Baicker discusses her groundbreaking research on Medicaid

Katherine Baicker
In a new episode of Big Brains, Prof. Katherine Baicker explains her research on the true costs and benefits of expanding health care.
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Robert Kozloff
Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office

Editor’s note: Big Brains is a new University of Chicago podcast in which some of the pioneering minds from across UChicago discuss their groundbreaking ideas and the stories behind them.

In 2008, when Oregon decided to expand its Medicaid program through a random lottery, Prof. Katherine Baicker struck research gold.

It presented the economic health care researcher with a unique opportunity to study the true costs and benefits of health care expansion through a system that provided a randomized trial. The project helped refute a number of myths surrounding health care expansion when its findings were published in 2013, amid renewed debates over health care in Washington.

“We could dispel the unduly optimistic view of the program, which is that Medicaid is such a wonderful program that it would make people healthier,” said Baicker, the Emmett Dedmond Professor at the University of Chicago. “We could also dispel the unduly pessimistic view of the program, which is Medicaid is such a badly run program, it doesn’t pay providers enough, it doesn’t really improve the health of enrollees. What we found, of course, was something in the gray area.”

Baicker is considered one of the foremost experts in U.S. health care policy. From 2005-2007 she was a Senate-confirmed member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and in 2017 she was named dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Baicker said that throughout her work, both as a researcher and alongside policymakers, she hopes she can be a “translator of evidence” and a trusted voice for this deeply contentious issue.

“Public policy is rarely easy—there are always tradeoffs involved,” Baicker said. “So when policymakers or reporters say, ‘So what does this tell us we should do about Medicaid?’ my answer is, it tells you you should weigh these costs against these benefits and decide what your priorities are and act accordingly.”

On this episode of Big Brains, Baicker shares what she and her team learned about the true costs and benefits of expanding health care, and provides insights into how to improve health care for all.

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