For distinguished health economist and health policy researcher Melinda Buntin, the complex world of economic policy is deeply intertwined with the daily lives of regular people.
"Of all of the reasons I love policy, it all comes back to the fact that it's important to people's daily lives," Buntin says. "It involves all kinds of different actors with different incentives and motivations coming together in a way that affects human welfare. I realized early on in my career that economists had an outsized sway in discussions of health reform because the effects on the federal budget are so large. I wanted to be a health economist who always kept in mind both spending and the value created by spending on health care. It's not just dollars: it's people, and it's lives."
Buntin has joined Johns Hopkins University as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Health Policy and Economics. She holds primary appointments in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and in the Carey Business School. In addition, Buntin will be a member of the Knowledge to Action and Business of Health BDP research cluster, which will conduct transformational research on the health care system.
"Melinda Buntin brings an impressive resume that includes government, private sector, and academic experience to the Johns Hopkins University," says Ray Jayawardhana, Johns Hopkins provost. "Her interdisciplinary approach to health economics and policy will be vital to the work of the Knowledge to Action and Business of Health BDP cluster."
Buntin's research analyzes health care delivery and costs with a focus on improving the value created by the U.S. health care system. Her work has investigated the effects of financing and payment policy on the organization and delivery of health care services and on the federal budget, and her research bridges health care policy and public health with the goal of providing insights and guidance to the health care sector, businesses, and policymakers, and ultimately improving health care delivery and outcomes.
To help do so, Buntin will lead a newly established Center for Health Systems and Policy Modeling. The center will address emerging issues in health policy, and build models related to health care supply and delivery. Work within the center will generate new ideas about financing and organization of health care that will achieve better value and better outcomes, and it will be a place where policymakers can bring their own ideas to be tested.
Buntin will be based at the new Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center in Washington, D.C. She says that this proximity to policymakers is crucial for establishing and maintaining relationships and bringing research and evidence-based ideas to policymakers.
"I've found that when you're dealing with policymakers, you have to give them information at the level that they need it, and in a way that involves an ongoing and trusted relationship," Buntin says. "The Hopkins Bloomberg Center—with its location at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue—is a manifestation of Johns Hopkins' commitment to being involved in policy at the federal level."
Defining Value in Health Care
For Buntin, it is crucial to note that in health care, value is not primarily defined by financial cost but by outcomes.
"Value is what you get per dollar spent," Buntin says. "We want to achieve the most health for society that we can for what we're spending. When health is unequally distributed in a society, we're not getting the best value we can for our health care spending. A health care system where certain professionals are systematically undervalued or exploited is also not a system that's producing the greatest value for society. We want to create a health care system that generates health and health outcomes in a way that's equally distributed, and that considers everyone involved in the health care system, including patients and health care professionals."
"Overall, my research is tied in some way to thinking about two things," Buntin says. "The first is how to improve the value we get out of the money spent on health care in this country, meaning how to get better quality and better health outcomes from the investments we make. The second is looking at the way policy shapes how care is organized and delivered and how that, in turn, can affect people who need care the most. Often, policies have unintended consequences for people who lack access to care, people who are chronically ill, and historically marginalized groups."
"Supply Side" Economics
At Johns Hopkins, Buntin looks forward to tackling a problem that has been on her mind for more than a decade: how to project the effects of "supply side" policies on the health care industry.
During her time as an economist in the Congressional Budget Office, Buntin evaluated health policies being considered by Congress, often using models to evaluate the effects of policy on individuals' choice of insurance or use of health care services. Most of these models focused on the "demand side" of health care. Now, Buntin is interested in the mechanisms used to pay health care organizations, including insurers, doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers—the "supply side" of the health care system.
"There's no comprehensive model of what economists refer to as 'supply side' analysis, or how the health care system functions and the effects of incentives on it," Buntin explains. "My goal is to incrementally fill that gap by looking at different parts of the health care system and develop models of the way they operate and the way that policies can affect them. Then they can be used to help a variety of players within the health care system and health care industry, including policymakers at the federal and state level."
"I'm inspired knowing how hard people work within our health care system to overcome the barriers and incentives that exist," Buntin says. "I think about how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my clinical colleagues and people across the country had to make up new ways of doing things to meet needs. But that's not confined to the pandemic, that happens all the time. I want my work to make it easier for health care professionals to deliver the best care to their patients in the most seamless way."
Working Across Disciplines
At Hopkins, Buntin is a part of the Knowledge to Action and Business of Health (KABOH) cluster, which is part of the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships (BDP) Cluster initiative. These faculty-developed interdisciplinary clusters recruit new BDPs and junior faculty members to Johns Hopkins to conduct transformational research in ten crucial fields. The KABOH cluster addresses the pressing social need of achieving better health outcomes in light of ever-rising health spending, facilitated by the Hopkins Business of Health Initiative.
"The culture created by the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships program and the framework of the KABOH cluster creates a natural way for me to exchange ideas with colleagues who have different disciplinary backgrounds than I do," Buntin says. "It is also exciting to get the chance to meet and exchange ideas with an even broader range of people, and I think that has great potential to influence my work and the way I think about what I do."
Buntin comes to JHU from Vanderbilt University, where she was a University Distinguished Professor. She was also the founding chair of the Department of Health Policy. During her time at Vanderbilt, she grew the department to 22 faculty members, created a health policy track in the master of public health program, and established a Ph.D. program in health policy.
Buntin earned her Bachelor of Arts in Public and International Affairs from Princeton University, and her PhD in Health Policy with a concentration in Economics from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt University, Buntin held several health policy leadership roles: she was deputy director of RAND Health's Economics, Financing, and Organization Program; director of Public Sector Initiatives for RAND Health; and co-director of the Bing Center for Health Economics. She also served as chief economist and founding director of the Office of Economics, Evaluation, and Modeling within the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and was a Director in the Health, Retirement and Long-Term Analysis Division at the Congressional Budget Office. "With her deep expertise and innovative thinking, Dr. Buntin will be a tremendous asset to the Bloomberg School," says Ellen J. MacKenzie, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "I am excited by the ways her powerful work dovetails with our longstanding strengths in health policy and management. In her role as a BDP, Dr. Buntin will help us press forward on our goal to ensure that the money we invest in health care brings the greatest possible returns in better health and longer lives."
"Melinda's impressive distinction as a researcher is a tremendous contribution to Carey Business School's rich faculty expertise," said Carey Business School Dean Alex Triantis. "Her deep understanding of health economics makes her uniquely qualified to work across disciplines with respected researchers in many Hopkins schools while also amplifying the value of our Hopkins Business of Health Initiative to researchers all over the world. We are very fortunate that she is part of Carey's present and future."
"In health and health care, there's no place like Hopkins," Buntin says. "It has been amazing to see the people assembled here and the range of research their work covers. This is a chance to be in a fantastic environment with great colleagues and amazing students, and to be part of an institution that is making a major push in the direction of my research. I feel a wonderful sense of alignment with both a commitment to influencing federal policy and the Hopkins Business of Health Initiative."
As a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Buntin joins an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars working to address major world problems and teach the next generation. The program is backed by a gift from Michael R. Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alumnus, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, World Health Organization Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries, United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions, and 108th mayor of New York City.