Sonia Sekhar currently serves as Deputy Director of the NY State of Health, New York’s official health plan marketplace. At NY State of Health, Sekhar leads the eligibility and enrollment data collection and reporting, provides research and analysis on a range of policy issues and serves as policy lead for the technical implementation of state and federal changes to Qualified Health Plans and the Basic Health Program in New York. In addition, she helps oversee plan management, financial management, budget development, and outreach and education activities at NY State of Health. She has experience working on health policy issues at the federal and state levels including at the Center for American Progress, the White House Office of Health Reform and Colorado’s Health Insurance Marketplace.
What is the most interesting work or highlight so far in your career?
One highlight that has been a silver lining of my work at the NY State of Health has to do with our response to the pandemic. Our team has operated with amazing speed and care throughout COVID to ensure millions of New Yorkers keep their health insurance. We also implemented changes to make enhanced health insurance premium subsidies from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 available to enrollees within a few weeks — quickly and efficiently.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Because of the times we are in, it’s not difficult to tell people why having health insurance is important. In the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, our marketplace is truly a one-stop-shop for health insurance and currently covers more than 6.5 million enrollees, across public programs and private coverage. Almost one third of New Yorkers are enrolled in our marketplace. Someone recently said our marketplace is one of the most consumer-centered in the country, and I take pride in that.
What is a story you tell others about the importance of public policy?
I started my policy journey when I volunteered as an undergraduate at Harlem Hospital. I worked at a family help desk at a pediatrics clinic connecting parents and families to resources, such as jobs, food security, etc. I remember a mother living in a homeless shelter who was bringing her four children to pediatric appointments. I met her before I was a parent myself and I now reflect what it must have been like to raise young children in a homeless shelter. I was baffled at the wait she experienced for resources and the challenges she faced, such as finding food. I tried to follow up to help her access food stamps and a food pantry, but was unable to help with her biggest challenge—her housing situation.
This experience made me realize that seeking resources can be a demeaning, disheartening experience for many. I realized how resource-intensive it is to apply to anything. It’s a mountain of challenge to complete long, complicated paperwork. I tried to think how to make it easier for people to apply for benefits.
That’s when I realized I wanted to make a difference in policy. I explored some of the policy issues in my senior thesis on infant mortality in New York. I interned on Capitol Hill. I worked at a think tank to push for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and then served on the policy staff at the White House Office of Health Reform. After working at the federal level to help establish policy, I wanted to work at the state level to implement policy. That brought me full circle back to New York. I wanted to make the system more streamlined, take out some of the judgment that can occur and to give everyone the dignity of good health and well-being.
Why does public policy matter in 2021 and beyond? How has it evolved (if you think it has)?
Policy’s purpose is to improve lives and to give everyone the dignity of the good health and well-being, so they can succeed.
Health care has demonstrated some clear market failures that only public policy can correct. For example, the elderly and those living in poverty were not able to access health care until the passage of Medicare and Medicaid started to address that gap. The Affordable Care Act chipped away at some remaining health insurance coverage gaps, but there is still work to be done.
When I talk about public service, the importance of work in government is directly connected. When you are working in government, you are in the ideal position to make change. In government, you can draw on research and information from advocates to implement and drive change on the front lines.
How would you describe Sanford’s contribution to public policy over the past 50 years?
Terry Sanford is a great example of a governor who had foresight and used policy to pave a prosperous future for North Carolina. The Research Triangle represents that very well.
I personally selected the Sanford School of Public Policy for its rigor and academics. Sanford has equipped students and future policy leaders to make good policy decisions. With policy education, there is a framework to think about and tackle complex problems.
What is the most important skill that policy students should learn?
Responsible consumption and presentation of data are important skills — especially in this age of misinformation. Reviewing the available research and being able to present it clearly and concisely alongside policy recommendations, is critical in your role as a policy leader.
What would you say to a current student at Sanford – a word of advice or something you wish you knew when you were graduating?
I tried to live by this principle during my time at Duke: Take the hardest classes that you can, the ones that hone skills that you can’t always learn on the job.
Terry Sanford implored students to ‘stand for something.’ What do you stand for?
Given the times we live in, I stand for truth and expertise in policymaking. When I first came to policy, I stood for helping those who need it most, and now I also stand for proactive engagement and involvement of the communities we serve in the policymaking process.