While pursuing a dual-degree master’s in health policy and international affairs at Columbia University, Julia Harris was selected for the Academy’s 2010 Washington (now Bernstein) Internship program and placed at AcademyHealth. After completing the program’s requirements, Harris was invited to become an Associate Member of the Academy. We caught up with her recently to learn more about her career path.
Q: What made you interested in health policy?
My interest in health policy began while I was working as an outreach coordinator for a federally qualified health center in southern New Jersey, doing migrant farm worker outreach. I would go to the migrant labor camps where they had huge barracks set up for seasonal workers during the growing season. We would perform health risk assessments and ask workers if they wanted to come in for doctor or dentist visits. I was trained to do various kinds of screenings—for instance for cholesterol, diabetes, and HIV—so you could say my role was a combination of program coordinator, community health worker, and medical case manager.
We were doing great work, but it was emotionally draining, because our efforts were just a band aid on much larger problems that I couldn’t change. I decided I had to put a policy lens on those issues, so I entered graduate school specifically for health policy. I was torn between working in either global or domestic policy after graduation, but then the Affordable Care Act passed and there was so much excitement around domestic reform that I decided to head for Washington, DC.
AcademyHealth was a great internship placement, because working there showed me what it means to take a very academic, high-level research approach to policy. Although I’ve gone on to work more on the implementation side, when I have to think about creating programs I really appreciate that research. I want to know what the evidence shows in terms of what works for new care models. It’s important to have access to people—like those I met during my internship and at AcademyHealth—who spend their lives doing careful research and publishing results. Thanks to my experience, I can contact people I know and ask them for a 30-minute tutorial, which is very valuable since I can’t read 100 copies of Health Affairs; I just need to know what is working and what isn’t. It is great to have colleagues for whom research is their jam.
Q: Has working in policy fulfilled your hope to make a difference in poor people’s lives?
Definitely! Working in policy is a step removed from the front-lines of direct service, but it gives you a much bigger platform to magnify your impact on people’s lives.
More about Julia Harris
Julia Harris has maintained her focus on health policy, especially for low-income people. After graduating from Columbia University, she became a senior health policy analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation, where she focused on federal health reform. She then worked for six years at TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program, designing and implementing new models of care for the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Currently, Harris is director of strategic initiatives at UnitedHealthcare, where, among other projects, she contributes to an evidence-based, outcomes-oriented care management program for individuals receiving Medicaid.