University Relations and Communications

Golden Merit senior goes from learning health care policy to helping craft it

April 25, 2012


Sara Harshman, a native of Chinook, will be graduating from MSU Billings Saturday with a degree in health administration. Next week, she starts work as a health policy research assistant for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.


Chinook’s Sara Harshman to be honored this weekend at MSU Billings convocation and commencement


MSUB College of Allied Health Professions Convocation: Friday, April 27 at 9 a.m. in Cisel Hall
MSUB Commencement: Saturday, April 28, 10 a.m. at MetraPark


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By Dan Carter


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Many college graduates will use their degrees to make a difference. Few will have the opportunity to do so almost immediately on a national level.


Say hello to Sara Harshman.


Sara Harshman

Saturday, the Chinook native and standout college student will cross the stage at MetraPark with a bachelor’s degree in health administration from Montana State University Billings. She will also be graduating as with the MSU Billings Golden Merit Award, a recognition for her academic and student involvement achievement. 


On Monday, she sets off to start work for the U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee as a health policy research assistant. She will be working for the committee and its chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat. The committee will be wrangling this summer with the balance between health care needs and a national deficit as well as the results of a much-debated U.S. Supreme Court case.


The work itself will be familiar ground for Harshman. She spent much of the past year on an internship with the Finance Committee’s health care team, where she prepared briefings and other materials for the committee staff. The internship ended this spring and she applied for the policy research assistant job, a position she says is a perfect fit for her interests.


“I knew I wanted to do an internship, but I didn’t want it to be job in a hospital setting just yet,” she said. “My experience was awesome.  I was expecting the internship to include answering calls and filing, but instead I was immediately included in substantial policy work.  I couldn't have asked for a better experience.”


While her work takes her away the hustle and bustle of the daily health care demands on a clinical level, she will be knee deep in the policy aspects of one of America’s major issues.  Most of her immediate job will be dissecting and analyzing the policies at the heart of a Supreme Court debate.


The court concluded a marathon public debate on health care in late March, with justices indicating an ideological divide that could topple some or all of the sweeping reform legislation championed by President Barack Obama and developed with Baucus’ help two years ago. The 2010 Affordable Care Act was in court as justices addressed challenges on legislative intent and the constitutionality of the law’s individual mandate. The health care reform law requires most Americans to have health coverage as part of a systemic overhaul intended to lower costs.


Because of her internship role with the Finance Committee, Harshman was able to sit in on the Supreme Court arguments, having a front row seat to history. And that is just the beginning.


“It will be interesting this summer,” she said. “All my activities will be around what happens with that issue.”


When Harshman graduated from high school in Chinook in 2008, the world was at her feet and choices were plentiful. She had some 4-H, student government and business-related experiences that prepared her well for any academic future. She liked MSU Billings, she said, because of it felt right.

“It still has a small-school feeling even though it’s in a larger city,” she said.


When she got to college, she embraced student life gusto. She got involved in Student Activities Board and as a sophomore was selected as a committee chair, a position typically held for upper-class students. She also volunteered providing meals to the hungry in the community through the “MSUB Night on the Van” program and became involved in other service learning projects.


She also dove into her academic program, pursuing opportunities to follow a path related to health care in a leadership role.


She has intimate knowledge of the health care system. A diabetic, she has been on insulin since she was 10 years old and her sister was diagnosed with a genetic form of diabetes when she was just two years old.  And because she is from the northcentral part of Montana, she wanted to work more in areas of rural health.


Russ Sullivan, the staff director for the Finance Committee, said in a letter supporting Harshman’s nomination for the Golden Merit Award that the MSU Billings student played important roles in deficit-reduction negotiations and policy development.  Specifically, she focused on rural health, Critical Access Hospital payment policy, post-acute provider payment policy and prevention policy, Sullivan said.  She also provided data support and graphics for the committee’s “Staff Report on Home Health and Medicare Therapy” that was published last September.


Harshman, meanwhile, takes all the praise and accolades with a dose of humility, knowing things are just getting started.


“It’s just rewarding working on policies that effect Montanans for the better,” she said.