Health maintenance organizations are prepaid health plans. As an HMO member, you pay a monthly premium. In exchange, the HMO provides comprehensive care for you and your family, including doctors' visits, hospital stays, emergency care, surgery, lab tests, x-rays, and therapy.
The HMO arranges for this care either directly in its own group practice and/or through doctors and other health care professionals under contract. Usually, your choices of doctors and hospitals are limited to those that have agreements with the HMO to provide care. However, exceptions are made in emergencies or when medically necessary.
There may be a small co-payment for each office visit, such as $5 for a doctor's visit or $25 for hospital emergency room treatment. Your total medical costs will likely be lower and more predictable in an HMO than with fee-for-service insurance.
Because HMOs receive a fixed fee for your covered medical care, it is in their interest to make sure you get basic health care for problems before they become serious. HMOs typically provide preventive care, such as office visits, immunizations, well-baby checkups, mammograms, and physicals. The range of services covered vary in HMOs, so it is important to compare available plans. Some services, such as outpatient mental health care, often are provided only on a limited basis.
Many people like HMOs because they do not require claim forms for office visits or hospital stays. Instead, members present a card, like a credit card, at the doctor's office or hospital. However, in an HMO you may have to wait longer for an appointment than you would with a fee-for-service plan.
In some HMOs, doctors are salaried and they all have offices in an HMO building at one or more locations in your community as part of a prepaid group practice. In others, independent groups of doctors contract with the HMO to take care of patients. These are called individual practice associations (IPAs) and they are made up of private physicians in private offices who agree to care for HMO members. You select a doctor from a list of participating physicians that make up the IPA network. If you are thinking of switching into an IPA-type of HMO, ask your doctor if he or she participates in the plan.
In almost all HMOs, you either are assigned or you choose one doctor to serve as your primary care doctor. This doctor monitors your health and provides most of your medical care, referring you to specialists and other health care professionals as needed. You usually cannot see a specialist without a referral from your primary care doctor who is expected to manage the care you receive. This is one way that HMOs can limit your choice.
Before choosing an HMO, it is a good idea to talk to people you know who are enrolled in it. Ask them how they like the services and care given.
Questions to Ask About an HMO
Are there many doctors to choose from? Do you select from a list of contract physicians or from the available staff of a group practice? Which doctors are accepting new patients? How hard is it to change doctors if you decide you want someone else? How are referrals to specialists handled?
Is it easy to get appointments? How far in advance must routine visits be scheduled? What arrangements does the HMO have for handling emergency care?
Does the HMO offer the services I want? What preventive services are provided? Are there limits on medical tests, surgery, mental health care, home care, or other support offered? What if you need a special service not provided by the HMO?
What is the service area of the HMO? Where are the facilities located in your community that serve HMO members? How convenient to your home and workplace are the doctors, hospitals, and emergency care centers that make up the HMO network? What happens if you or a family member are out of town and need medical treatment?
What will the HMO plan cost? What is the yearly total for monthly fees? In addition, are there copayments for office visits, emergency care, prescribed drugs, or other services? How much?
Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs)
The preferred provider organization is a combination of traditional fee-for-service and an HMO. Like an HMO, there are a limited number of doctors and hospitals to choose from. When you use those providers (sometimes called "preferred" providers, other times called "network" providers), most of your medical bills are covered.
When you go to doctors in the PPO, you present a card and do not have to fill out forms. Usually there is a small copayment for each visit. For some services, you may have to pay a deductible and coinsurance.
As with an HMO, a PPO requires that you choose a primary care doctor to monitor your health care. Most PPOs cover preventive care. This usually includes visits to the doctor, well-baby care, immunizations, and mammograms.
In a PPO, you can use doctors who are not part of the plan and still receive some coverage. At these times, you will pay a larger portion of the bill yourself (and also fill out the claims forms). Some people like this option because even if their doctor is not a part of the network, it means they don't have to change doctors to join a PPO.
Questions to Ask About a PPO
Are there many doctors to choose from? Who are the doctors in the PPO network? Where are they located? Which ones are accepting new patients? How are referrals to specialists handled?
What hospitals are available through the PPO? Where is the nearest hospital in the PPO network? What arrangements does the PPO have for handling emergency care?
What services are covered? What preventive services are offered? Are there limits on medical tests, out-of-hospital care, mental health care, prescription drugs, or other services that are important to you?
What will the PPO plan cost? How much is the premium? Is there a per-visit cost for seeing PPO doctors or other types of co-payments for services? What is the difference in cost between using doctors in the PPO network and those outside it? What is the deductible and coinsurance rate for care outside of the PPO? Is there a limit to the maximum you would pay out of pocket?
Point-of-Service (POS) Plan
Many HMOs offer plan members the option to self direct care, as one would under an indemnity or PPO plan, rather than get referrals from primary care physicians. An HMO with this opt-out provision is known as a point-of-service (POS) plan. How the plan functions (i.e., like an HMO or like an indemnity plan) depends on whether individual plan members use their primary care physician or self direct their care at the "point of service."
To illustrate this point, this is how these plans typically work. When medical care is needed, the individual plan member essentially has up to two or three choices, depending on the particular health plan. The plan member can choose to go through his or her primary care physician, in which case services will be covered under HMO guidelines (i.e., usually a co-payment will be required). Alternatively, the plan member can access care through a PPO provider and the services will be covered under in-network PPO rules (i.e., usually a co-payment and coinsurance will be required). Lastly, if the plan member chooses to obtain services from a provider outside of the HMO and PPO networks, the services will be reimbursed according to out-of-network rules (i.e., usually a co-payment and higher coinsurance charge will be required). Because people who belong to POS plans are responsible for deciding how to access care within the various options, it is important that they understand the financial implications of these choices.
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