VCU Health Administration Boosts Research Bench with Health Economist and Professor

Adam AtherlyThe addition of a new VCU Health Administration faculty member has bolstered the research capabilities of one of the nation’s leading academic health leadership programs.

To boil Adam Atherly, Ph.D.’s research into a single phrase: “Choice modeling,” he explains — specifically, how consumers make buying decisions around Medicare and private health insurance plans.

“That's the core of what I'm interested in,” says Atherly, who comes to Richmond after four years teaching and researching at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. “People think money drives everything. But it doesn’t. People make decisions for all kinds of reasons, and all of those reasons are completely valid. We make decisions based on culture, age, income, and millions of other factors.”

Atherly joined the VCU faculty on August 1 as a full professor. He will teach the U.S. Healthcare Systems course this fall in the MHA program. 

Over two decades, his work has spanned health insurance theory: how benefits packages are put together, how market forces impact offerings on consumers, scale development and psychometric analysis, and the effectiveness of community health teams on improving the quality and efficiency of care delivery. He’s part of an ongoing study identifying individual, community, and structural factors associated with lower COVID-19 testing rates in northern New England, with a focus on underserved and vulnerable populations.

Yet Atherly is perhaps best known for his work around Medicare Advantage plans. Known also as "Part C" or "MA Plans," Medicare Advantage is offered by Medicare-approved private companies that must follow rules set by the federal government. The plans may offer extra benefits and have lower out-of-pocket costs compared to Original Medicare.

The popularity of Medicare Advantage has grown over the years – nearly half of all Medicare recipients are on them. “Everybody knows the growth in Medicare Advantage is happening, but nobody knows why,” he says. He is working on projects to model and understand why the program dynamics are changing and how that will affect the future of the Medicare program.

To that end, Atherly’s work is often described as “the economics of aging,” he explains. “My work is really thinking about older populations, and what’s necessary economically to help them be successful in managing their healthcare.”

Paula H. Song, Ph.D., the Richard M. Bracken Chair and Professor at VCU Health Administration, said the department was interested in finding a faculty member who could contribute to its research portfolio.

“It's important for our students to understand how research drives practice and policy,” she says. “Adam's focus around Medicare and health insurance market choice is highly relevant given the way the industry functions and the how vast majority of health services is financed by Medicare and health plans.”

Song also said Atherly had demonstrated an ability to collaborate across a number of disciplines, “which is important for a department like ours” in the VCU College of Health Professions. Health Administration is one of nine key health career fields housed under a single roof, and students and faculty often work with one another.

“My skills are very complementary to what the department wants to do,” Atherly says. “I have the opportunity, being there, to really focus on the areas of my research that I'm most interested in.”

An Oregon native, Atherly has lived in various parts of the country and is looking forward to finding new outdoor activities to pursue in Richmond and Virginia. He moves here with his wife, Tricia. Their two children, a son and daughter, are in college at the University of Vermont.

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