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Home  Healthcare Articles  Health maintenance organization

   Health maintenance organization

A Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) is a type of Managed Care Organization (MCO) that provides a form of health insurance through hospitals, doctors, and other providers with which the HMO has a contract. Unlike traditional indemnity insurance, coverage under an HMO is limited to a comprehensive list of pre-defined services provided by the HMO's network of contracted providers. Under this model, providers enter a contract with an HMO in order to recieve more patients and in return usually agree to provide services at a discount. This arrangement allows the HMO to lower its monthly premiums, offering an advantage over indemnity insurance, provided that its members are willing to abide by the additional restrictions.

   Operation

In addition to using their contracts with providers for services at a lower price, HMOs hope to gain an advantage over traditional insurance plans by managing their patients' health care and reducing unecessary services. To acheive this, most HMOs require members to select a primary care physician (PCP), a doctor who acts as a "gatekeeper" to medical services. PCPs are usually internists, pediatricians, family doctors, or general practitioners. In a typical HMO, most medical needs must first go through the PCP, who authorizes referrals to specialists or other doctors if deemed necessary. Emergency medical care does not require prior authorization from a PCP, and many plans allow women to select an OB/GYN in addition to a PCP, whom they may see without a referral. In some cases, a chronically ill patient may be allowed to select a specialist in field of the illness as a PCP.

HMOs also manage care through utilization review. The amount of utilization is usually expressed as a number of visits or services or a dollar amount per member per month (PMPM). Utilization review is intended to identify providers providing an unusally high amount of services, in which case some services may not be medically necessary, or an unusally low amount of services, in which case patients may not be receiving appropriate care and are in danger of worsening a condition. HMOs often provide preventive care for a lower copayment or for free, in order to keep members from developing a preventable condition that would require a great deal of medical services. When HMOs were coming into existance, indemnity plans often did not cover preventive services, such as immunizations, well-baby checkups, mammograms, or physicals. It is this inclusion of services intended to maintain a member's health that gave the HMO its name. Some services, such as outpatient mental health care, are often provided on a limited basis, and more costly forms of care, diagnosis, or treatment may not be not covered. Experimental treatments and elective services that are not medically necessary (such as elective plastic surgery) are almost never covered.

Other methods for managing care are case management, in which patients with catastrophic cases are identified, or disease management, in which patients with certain chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, or some forms of cancer are identified. In either case, the HMO takes a greater level of involvement in the patient's care, assigning a case manager to the patient or a group of patients to ensure that no two providers provide overlapping care, and to ensure that the patient is receiving appropriate treatment, so that the condition does not worsen beyond what can be helped.

HMOs often shift some financial risk to providers through a system called capitation, where certain providers (usually PCPs) receive a fixed payment per member per month and in return provide certain services for free. Under this arrangement, the provider does not have the incentive to provide unnecessary care, as he will not receive any additional payment for the care. Some plans offer a bonus to providers whose care meets a predetermined level of quality.

   History

The earliest form of HMOs can be seen in a number of prepaid health plans. In 1910, the Western Clinic in Tacoma, Washington offered lumber mill owners and their employees certain medical services from its providers for a premium of $0.50 per member per month. This is consired by some to be the first example of an HMO. In 1929, Dr. Michael Shadid created a health plan in Elk City, Oklahoma in which farmers bough shares for $50 to raise the money to build a hospital. The medical community did not like this arrangement and threatened to suspend Shadid's licence. The Farmer's Union took control of the hospital and the health plan in 1934. Also in 1929, Baylor Hospital provided approximately 1,500 teachers with prepaid care. This was the origin of Blue Cross. Around 1939, state medical societies created Blue Shield plans to cover physician services, as Blue Cross covered only hospital services. These prepaid plans burgeoned during the Great Depression as a method for providers to ensure constant and steady revenue.

In 1970, the number of HMOs declined to less than 40. Paul Ellwood, often called the "father" of the HMO, began having discussions with what is today the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that led to the enactment of the Health Maintaince Organization Act in 1973. This act had three main provisions:

  • Grants and loans were provided to plan, start, or expand an HMO
  • Certain state-imposed restrictions on HMOs were removed if the HMOs were federally certified
  • Employers with 25 or more employees were required to offer federally certified HMO options alongside indemnity upon request

This last provision, called the dual choice provision, was the most important, as it gave HMOs access to the critical employer-based market that had often been blocked in the past. The federal government was slow to issue regulations and certify plans until 1977, when HMOs began to grow rapidly. The dual choice provision expired in 1995.

The largest HMO today is Kaiser Permanente, with 8.3 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia. Kaiser Permanente is structured into eight regional units; the organization's largest unit, the Northern California unit, is itself larger than any other HMO in the country.

Starting in 1990, Switzerland has founded several HMOs which at the moment include some 10 percent of the Swiss population. The percentage would be much higher if there were HMOs in all regions. This is not possible because there are mountainous regions where the population density is too low.

    Types of HMOs

HMOs operate in a variety of forms. Most HMOs today do not fit neatly into one form; they can have multiple divisions, each operating under a different model, or blend two or more models together.

In the staff model, physicians are salaried and have offices in HMO buildings. In this case, physicians are direct employees of the HMOs. This model is an example of a closed-panel HMO, meaning that contracted physicians may only see HMO patients.

In the group model, the HMO does not pay the physicians directly, but pays a physician group. The group then decides how to distribute the money to the individual physicians. This model is also closed-panel.

Physicians may contract with an independent practice association (IPA), which in turn contracts with the HMO. This model is an example of an open-panel HMO, where a physician may maintain his own office and may see non-HMO members.

In the network model, an HMO will contract with any combination of groups, IPAs, and individual physicians.

    Legal Responsibilities

HMOs often have a negative public image due to their restrictive appearance. HMOs have been the target of lawsuits claiming that the restrictions of the HMO prevented necessary care. Whether an HMO can be held responsible for a physician's negligence partially depends on the HMO's screening process. If an HMO only contracts with providers meeting certain quality criteria and advertises this to its members, a court may be more likely to find that the HMO is responsible, just as hospitals can be liable for negligence in selecting physicians. Since the HMO controls only the financial aspect of providing care, not the medical aspect, it is often insulated from malpratice lawsuits. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) can be held to preempt negligence claims as well. In this case, the deciding factor is whether the harm results from the plan's administration or the provider's actions.

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