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IU PhD candidate studies the effects of public policy on opioid abuse

How can public policy influence patterns around opioid misuse? According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 49,000 deaths in America were caused by opioid misuse in 2017, representing a significant increase from previous years. This public health crisis, coupled with a relatively high number of US adults without health insurance, is at the heart of Aparna Soni’s research. Soni, a PhD candidate in the Business Economics and Public Policies Department at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, whose work is supervised by Kosali Simon, Jeffrey Prince, Dan Sacks, and Haizhen Lin, studies the role of policy in improving public health outcomes.

Her previous research has addressed the effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Medicaid expansion, and found that “increasing insurance coverage improves preventative care use, increases early-stage cancer diagnosis, and reduces participation in federal disability programs, with little impact on health behaviors.” Her most recent work focuses on how public policy changes can curtail opioid misuse.

IU PhD candidate Aparna Soni

Soni’s research requires the analysis of large data sets primarily from the US Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Nielsen, many of which contain tens of millions of observations. She has turned to Karst, one of IU's high performance computing clusters, in order to overcome the typically limited storage capacity and processing speed of most personal computers. Soni has found that what might take several hours on her computer takes mere minutes on Karst, which allows her to conduct advanced statistical analysis on these data sets. She reports, “These computing resources help me complete projects more quickly and make me more productive as a researcher.”

These computing resources help me complete projects more quickly and make me more productive as a researcher.

Soni is careful to distinguish in her work between correlational and causational relationships, particularly as they relate to policy creation. For instance, to compare death rates among those who are insured versus those who are not oversimplifies the matter, failing to account for other variables present among those who tend to enroll for insurance, such as level of risk aversion and other unobserved characteristics. Therefore, Soni’s work emphasizes “careful application of econometric techniques on ‘natural experiments’ that generate random variation in insurance enrollment (such as the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion).”

Moving forward, Soni hopes to deliver important insights to policymakers through her research. In particular, her dissertation analyzes how opioid prices influence individuals’ use of the drugs. Her findings indicate that people’s opioid use is very responsive to price changes, and suggest that increasing the out-of-pocket price, through insurance plan design or taxes, may help reduce new opioid use. In this way, Soni’s work endeavors to help guide policy in ways that might curtail this public health crisis.