UCLA has received $500,000 from Arnold Ventures to study how the use of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic affected access to, utilization of and the costs of health care in the United States

Under the two-year grant, the research team will investigate how telemedicine affected equitable access to care and whether it ultimately lowered or raised costs to U.S. payers and patients during the pandemic, said Dr. John Mafi, associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the project’s principal investigator. They will use the Milliman MedInsight Emerging Experience research database, one of the nation’s largest and most current health care administrative databases.

“Although it is clear that telemedicine increased access to care for certain health services during the pandemic, it remains less clear to what degree this care delivery method was expanded equitably, and how it affected the overall cost of services for patients and payers,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Sarkisian and Dr. Katherine Kahn, both of whom are professors of medicine, will serve as co-investigators. The multi-institutional team includes collaborators from RAND Corporation and University of Michigan, as well as Milliman MedInsight data scientists, led by Dr. Melody Craff, vice president of strategic analytics and education at Milliman MedInsight. This award builds off this team’s previous 2022 report on U.S. ambulatory care patterns during the pandemic, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Most pandemic telemedicine policies set by Medicare such as maintaining the same pay rates for telemedicine as in-person care, allowing telemedicine care across state lines, and paying for audio-only visits at the same rate as video visits, will expire by Dec. 31, 2022, Mafi said.

The study findings can inform U.S. policymakers’ looming decision on whether to continue telemedicine policies that were in place during the pandemic, and if so, how to do so efficiently and equitably.