BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Massachusetts health insurers are launching a new research project that aims to get a handle on inequities in telehealth usage and recommend ways to bring down barriers to access.
Telehealth has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a way for patients to keep up with their care without leaving home and risking exposure to the highly infectious virus.
Health care leaders have said telehealth is likely to stick around as an option after the public health crisis subsides, and a bill to cement its place in the state's health care landscape has been tied up in private negotiations among House and Senate Democrats for the last three months.
Along with its promise as an innovation in care delivery, another main conversation topic around telehealth h as been the potential for disparities in its deployment, arising from factors like language barriers, internet access and the ability to obtain and comfortably use a device.
The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans is sponsoring an 18-month study "to identify how access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic has differed based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic factors, and how the health care sector can work together to eliminate identified barriers to equitable access."
The association said in a statement that the study, which will include a review of recent claims data and interviews in communities with low telehealth-use rates, "aims to be the most timely and comprehensive evaluation to-date of potential socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic inequities in telehealth usage in Massachusetts, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic."
A preliminary report is tentatively set for a July release, with a final report slated for one year after that.
Dr. Alon Peltz, an instructor of population medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Harvard Medical School, will lead the study, and the state Health Policy Commission will serve as an advisor.
"I think the key, which really resonates with me as a researcher and a clinician is how do we synthesize that data into policy and action that can work across the entire sector," Peltz told the News Service.
He said the claims data will give his team a "holistic view," across different communities and demographic groups, of where there are variations in telehealth access, use, and proportion of use compared to in-person care. Interviews with patients, families, caregivers, providers and local health officials will help give researchers and understanding of how those stakeholders perceive the issue, he said.
"There's an opportunity, I think, to build a really innovative collaboration between health plans to get data that is recent and help us track as the pandemic evolves, how access and equity has evolved in terms of telehealth usage," Peltz said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Attorney General Maura Healey, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Health Policy Commission Executive Director David Seltz all praised the effort in a MAHP press release.
Lora Pellegrini, the association's president and CEO, said the study is one of two initiatives recommended by a working group convened to look at how the health plans can address issues of race and health equity.
The second is a new workforce development compact that aims to support employment opportunities for people of color and low-income communities. Pellegrini said the majority of MAHP member plans have signed the compact, committing to work in three focus areas: promoting cultures of diversity and inclusion, creating a pipeline to employment, and increasing opportunities for diverse candidates with targeted, entry-level health care jobs.
DeLeo and Spilka each said the chambers they lead look forward to working with MAHP on its efforts, and Healey said her office "stands ready to partner with our health plans and other stakeholders in taking action to ensure equitable access to health care for all Massachusetts residents."
By Katie Lannan, State House News Service