October 4, 2011

Cornell Professor Wins Awards For Economics Study

Print More

Prof. Nicolas Ziebarth, policy analysis and management, garnered two first-place awards for his dissertation research on sick leave and economic incentives.

The first award, given by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, recognizes his full doctoral dissertation. The second — a “best paper” award from the German Institute for Economic Research — commends a chapter of the dissertation discussing the effects of convalescent health care.

Ziebarth’s doctoral dissertation, “Sickness Absence and Economic Incentives,” analyzed the affect of German health care reforms — and their economic incentives — on how often employees take sick leave.

Ziebarth said that while many studies show correlations between sick leave behavior and economic incentives, he sought to build on that research in his paper and show that economic incentives actually cause employees’ sick leave behavior.

“When benefits were cut, employees called in sick less often,” Ziebarth said. “When benefits increased again, employees were more often sick.”

One explanation for such behavior is that employees abuse the social security system. Another, which is in sharp contrast to the first, is “presenteeism” — that many employees go to work although they are sick.

“The challenge is to design social security systems is a way to reduce both phenomena,“ Ziebarth said.

On the other hand, Ziebarth said he did not find much evidence for the notion that people with long-term sicknesses react to moderate economic incentives.

His study relied on longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, which tracks demographic data and medical care use of 20,000 Germans, he said.

The “more prestigious” of the two awards, according to Ziebarth, is the 2011 W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research Dissertation Award. Ziebarth earned the first-place prize for his doctoral thesis.

“The Upjohn Institute is renowned among labor economists,” he said. “I really feel honored that they awarded me this prize because the past winners are very well-known researchers.”

According to its website, the Upjohn Institute is a leader in employment research. Each year it evaluates thesis submissions based on four criteria: policy relevance, technical quality of the research, potential impact on real-world problems, and presentation.

Ziebarth will receive the award at the Allied Social Science Association’s meeting in Chicago this January. The Upjohn prize includes $2,500 and a full-page announcement in the American Economic Review and the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “two of the most respected economic journals worldwide,” according to Ziebarth.

In addition, Ziebarth will fly to his home country of Germany to receive the prize from The German Institute for Economic Research — Ziebarth’s former employer and “the largest economic research institute in Germany,”  according to its website. The institute will present Ziebarth with its Best Paper Award on Thursday for the chapter of his dissertation that examines convalescent care programs.

Ziebarth’s convalescent care research shows “that increasing co-payments for medical services is a way to dampen the demand for health care and to reduce health expenditure,” he said.

The German Institute’s award committee acknowledged the groundbreaking quality of Ziebarth’s work. In his award letter, they noted that, while previous research has shown correlations between price increases and demand for convalescent care, his is the first to prove their causal relationship.

Ziebarth’s study of sickness absence and economic incentives lies at the crossroads of his specializations in health economics and labor economics.

“The study was a pragmatic choice. I’ve always been interested in the health care system and labor economics, and sickness absence combines them. There were four or five health care reforms in Germany that nobody had looked at in Germany,” he said.

In August, Ziebarth joined Cornell’s department of policy analysis and management, where teaches masters students in the Sloan Program in Health Administration. He said he sees himself “mainly as a health economist” and is currently exploring how the pricing of health care plan affects policyholders’ switching between plans.

Original Author: Erin Ellis