Importance: This study assesses the role of telehealth in the delivery of care at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Objectives: To document patterns and costs of ambulatory care in the US before and during the initial stage of the pandemic and to assess how patient, practitioner, community, and COVID-19-related factors are associated with telehealth adoption. Design, Setting, and Participants: This is a cohort study of working-age persons continuously enrolled in private health plans from March 2019 through June 2020. The comparison periods were March to June in 2019 and 2020. Claims data files were provided by Blue Health Intelligence, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Data analysis was performed from June to October 2020. Main Outcomes and Measures: Ambulatory encounters (in-person and telehealth) and allowed charges, stratified by characteristics derived from enrollment files, practitioner claims, and community characteristics linked to the enrollee's zip code. Results: A total of 36568010 individuals (mean [SD] age, 35.71 [18.77] years; 18466557 female individuals [50.5%]) were included in the analysis. In-person contacts decreased by 37% (from 1.63 to 1.02 contacts per enrollee) from 2019 to 2020. During 2020, telehealth visits (0.32 visit per person) accounted for 23.6% of all interactions compared with 0.3% of contacts in 2019. When these virtual contacts were added, the overall COVID-19 era patient and practitioner visit rate was 18% lower than that in 2019 (1.34 vs 1.64 visits per person). Behavioral health encounters were far more likely than medical contacts to take place virtually (46.1% vs 22.1%). COVID-19 prevalence in an area was associated with higher use of telehealth; patients from areas within the top quintile of COVID-19 prevalence during the week of their encounter were 1.34 times more likely to have a telehealth visit compared with those in the lowest quintile (the reference category). Persons living in areas with limited social resources were less likely to use telehealth (most vs least socially advantaged neighborhoods, 27.4% vs 19.9% usage rates). Per enrollee medical care costs decreased by 15% between 2019 and 2020 (from $358.32 to $306.04 per person per month). During 2020, those with 1 or more COVID-19-related service (1470721 members) had more than 3 times the medical costs ($1701 vs $544 per member per month) than those without COVID-19-related services. Persons with 1 or more telehealth visits in 2020 had considerably higher costs than persons having only in-person ambulatory contacts ($2214.10 vs $1337.78 for the COVID-19-related subgroup and $735.87 vs $456.41 for the non-COVID-19 subgroup). Conclusions and Relevance: This study of a large cohort of patients enrolled in US health plans documented patterns of care at the onset of COVID-19. The findings are relevant to policy makers, payers, and practitioners as they manage the use of telehealth during the pandemic and afterward.
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