A health maintenance organization (HMO) is a type of managed healthcare system. HMOs, and their close cousins, preferred provider organizations (PPOs), share the goal of reducing healthcare costs by focusing on preventative care and implementing utilization management controls.
Unlike many traditional insurers, HMOs do not merely provide financing for medical care. The HMO actually delivers the treatment as well. Doctors, hospitals, and insurers all participate in the business arrangement known as an HMO.
HMOs provide medical treatment on a prepaid basis, which means that HMO members pay a fixed monthly fee, regardless of how much medical care is needed in a given month. In return for this fee, most HMOs provide a wide variety of medical services, from office visits to hospitalization and surgery. With a few exceptions, HMO members must receive their medical treatment from physicians and facilities within the HMO network. The size of this network varies depending on the individual HMO.
When you join an HMO, you choose a primary care physician (PCP) who is your first contact for all medical care needs. The primary care physician provides your general medical care and must be consulted before you can see a specialist. Because of this control system, HMO costs tend to increase less rapidly than other insurance plans.
Advantages of HMOs
Low out-of-pocket costs
With most types of insurance, you are responsible for paying a percentage of the bill every time you receive medical care. Additionally, there may be a deductible that must be met before insurance starts picking up the tab. In contrast, HMO members pay a fixed monthly fee, regardless of how much medical care is needed in a given month. Instead of deductibles, HMOs often have nominal co-payments.
Focus on wellness and preventative care
By reducing out-of-pocket costs and paperwork, HMOs encourage members to seek medical treatment early, before health problems become severe. Additionally, many HMOs offer health education classes and discounted health club memberships.
Typically no lifetime maximum payout
Unlike most health insurance plans, HMOs generally do not place a limit on your lifetime benefits. The HMO will continue to cover your treatment as long as you are a member.
Disadvantages of HMOs
Tight controls can make it more difficult to get specialized care
As an HMO member, you must choose a primary care physician (PCP). Your PCP provides your general medical care and must be consulted before you seek care from another physician or specialist. This screening process helps to reduce costs both for the HMO and for HMO members, but it can also lead to complications if your PCP doesn't provide the referral you need.
Care from non-HMO providers generally not covered
Except for emergencies occurring outside the HMO's treatment area, HMO members are required to obtain all treatment from HMO physicians. The HMO will not pay for non-emergency care provided by a non-HMO physician. Additionally, there may be a strict definition of what constitutes an emergency.