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Director's Message

When I wrote my last director’s message looking forward to what we hoped to accomplish in 2020, I could never have imagined what the year would hold for us. 2020 was a devastating year for our entire world — a year of challenges, of inequality, of loss. For public health, it was a year of upheaval and uncertainty, and a crucial call to action.

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the biggest disruptors, igniting around the world and striking specific communities in America like a sledgehammer: older adults, those who are low-income, those with underlying health conditions, and communities of color, whose members make up the bulk of health care and other essential workers. More than 20 million people contracted the virus in the United States, and we lost nearly 350,000 lives in 2020.

COVID-19 further exposed the deep fractures and inequities in our society, where health care remains a privilege rather than a right, and racism is a systemic crisis, as well as a deeply ingrained public health crisis. We found ourselves at an inflection point in the midst of outsized challenges.

The pandemic also pushed the research community into a scientific sprint: to understand this novel disease, create tools to track and help control its spread, identify treatments, and develop a vaccine to stop the disease in its tracks. 

Here at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (CHPR), we created several tools to track COVID-19 and various risk factors, which revealed long-standing systemic social and health inequities facing racial and ethnic minority groups.

  • Our California Health Interview Survey (CHIS), the nation’s largest state health survey, quickly developed COVID-19 dashboards that track case and death rates and showed which groups were most at risk based on incidence of chronic diseases, income, race/ethnicity, and other factors. 
  • CHIS also added a series of COVID-19 questions and, for the first time in history, we released preliminary estimates more than a year in advance of release. Topics featured COVID-19 treatment and vaccine acceptability, personal and financial impacts of the pandemic, and conflict in the household during stay-at-home orders, easily filtered by numerous demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and health risk factors.   
  • Working with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander leaders throughout the country, UCLA CHPR established the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander COVID-19 Data Policy Lab in response to the tremendous impact on the NHPI community. The Lab’s dashboard and data have been used by organizations throughout the country, in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, and featured in news media. In late 2020, the lab was awarded $500,000 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue to address striking gaps within data and research for NHPIs. 

These dashboards reached audiences around the world— from right here in Los Angeles to across the pond in London, and all the way to Guam — earning more than 15,000 views and featured in 25+ media outlets. CHIS data were also cited in COVID-19 studies featured in peer-reviewed national and international journals. 

In addition to the critical role CHIS is playing in COVID-19 research, this year’s CHIS unveiled a sampling and data collection redesign and for the first time since its inception, moved to a mixed-mode survey (web and telephone) using a random sample of California addresses for 2019–2020. More than 40 questionnaire topics were added on opioid use, sexual violence, internet and social media use, public program participation, physical and environmental factors’ impact on health, and other critical topics.

We were proud to receive a grant from the National Collaborative for Gun Violence Research to add a firearms module to the 2021 and 2022 CHIS to advance knowledge on gun violence and fill decades long critical data gaps about risk factors for gun suicide and urban gun violence among understudied and disproportionately impacted subpopulations, especially our youth/young adults, veterans, immigrants, and LGBT people who make up our communities in California.

AskCHIS and AskCHIS Neighborhood Edition (NE), two of our free online health data tools that provide access to authoritative health statistics on California's diverse population to the public, totaled nearly 100,000 queries.  

CHIS has and continues to inform and educate legislators who make decisions about health policy and health advocates who shed light on health disparities that affect Californians — from the physical and mental health of communities of color to a tally of those who gained access to care under the Affordable Care Act to food consumption and exercise trends. You can read more about CHIS’ accomplishments in our CHIS Making an Impact 2020 report.

In 2020, UCLA CHPR produced 14 publications in-house, including policy briefs, fact sheets, and research reports on topics ranging from mental health to voter engagement to the impact of the ACA. In addition, UCLA CHPR staff and data contributed to more than 120 journal articles and reports.

UCLA CHPR events, mostly virtual in 2020, brought important health topics to 3,350 people, including our E.R. Brown Symposium, Healing a Fractured Society: Health Care As a Right, which brought public health experts from around the country together for important conversations on the fractures the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare in our health systems and the strategies for change in addressing health equity. 

As public charge continued to make headlines, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District: City and County of San Francisco vs. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cited UCLA CHPR data on public charge as evidence to oppose public charge with data on the number of people who would disenroll in Medicaid and other public services. 

The UCLA CHPR’s National Network of Surveys, which supports quality state and local population health surveys, launched the Addressing Health Equity Through Data Disaggregation workshop series, expert-led sessions designed to improve the disaggregation of race and ethnicity measures in health data sources, expose gaps in health equity, and inform policies and programs and close those gaps, which is being supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Under the leadership of Center Associate Director Steven P. Wallace, PhD, UCLA CHPR made advancements in research on elder health and immigrant health. 

Research on ImmiGrant HealTh and State policy (RIGHTS) is an NIH-funded study designed to understand the policy-driven experiences that Latino and Asian immigrants in California have encountered in the areas of health care, social services, employment, education, and law enforcement. The goal is to examine how these experiences have had an impact on their health and access to health care. Data collection is now complete with more than 2,000 survey responses and 60 in-depth interviews; preliminary analyses have been presented at national conferences and publications are underway. Dr. Wallace and colleagues also produced a policy brief on the alarming impact that a 2020 Census undercount of immigrant and U.S. born Latinos would cause on health and social services in Los Angeles County.

As the population of older adults in California is expected to grow from 5.5 million in 2016 to 13.5 million in 2060, the number of economically insecure older adults will increase as well. UCLA CHPR released the 2019 California Elder Index, an evidence-based indicator of the actual basic costs faced by older adults for housing, health care, food, and transportation. The index is viewed by many as a more accurate measure of economic security than federal poverty level (FPL) guidelines, a standardized national estimate that does not take into account the cost of living in high-cost states.

Led by Center Associate Director Nadereh Pourat, PhD, the Health Economics and Evaluation Research (HEER) Program, which examines the economic and financial impacts of national, state, and local-level health care interventions, had a banner year, producing critical evaluations of some of the state’s most important innovation programs:California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS)’ Public Hospital Redesign and Incentives in Medi-Cal (PRIME), Whole Person Care (WPC) Program, and Medi-Cal Health Homes Program (HHP). Pourat, along with and UC Berkeley Professor Emmeline Chuang, received a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore how California counties responded to COVID-19 under the Whole Person Care (WPC) Medicaid Pilot Program.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) celebrated its 10th anniversary and UCLA CHPR senior fellow Gerald Kominski, PhD, and researchers took on the herculean task of evaluating the accomplishments and shortfalls of the ACA in a report entitled Ten Years of the Affordable Care Act: Major Gains and Ongoing Disparities.

In a tumultuous year of health news, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research remained a constant, providing credible, comprehensive, and accessible data aimed at improving access to health care and reducing, and ultimately eliminating, health disparities. The center’s faculty and work were mentioned over 500 times in the media, proof that we are committed to staying on the pulse of public health policy and dialogue.

As we look to 2021, with a new president and administration and a disease that continues to ravage communities, we will continue to further develop and provide our evidence toolbox of data, dashboards and insights, delivering on our core mission: to improve the public’s health through high-quality, objective, and evidence-based research and data that informs effective policymaking.

Here’s to a year of healing and health, science and research, and fighting for better health for all

Ninez A. Ponce, PhD, MPP
UCLA Center for Health Policy Research

Read more about Ninez Ponce here.