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Health Insurance & Affordable Care Act

HMO, PPO, EPO: What Health Plan Is Best?

WebMD News from Kaiser Health News

By Michelle Andrews

Fri, Aug 15 2014

What’s in a name? When it comes to health plans sold on the individual market, these days it’s often less than people think. The lines that distinguish HMOs, PPOs, EPOs and POS plans from one another have blurred, making it hard to know what you’re buying by name alone--assuming you're one of the few people who know what an EPO is in the first place. 

Ideally, plan type provides a shorthand way to determine what sort of access members have to providers outside a plan’s network, including cost-sharing for such treatment, among other things. But since there are no industry-wide definitions of plan types and state standards vary, individual insurers often have leeway to market similar plans under different names. In general: 

  • Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) cover only care provided by doctors and hospitals inside the HMO’s network. HMOs often require members to get a referral from their primary care physician in order to see a specialist.
  • Preferred provider organizations (PPOs) cover care provided both inside and outside the plan’s provider network. Members typically pay a higher percentage of the cost for out-of-network care. 
  • Exclusive provider organizations (EPOs) are a lot like HMOs: They generally don’t cover care outside the plan’s provider network. Members, however, may not need a referral to see a specialist.
  • Point of Service (POS) plans vary, but they’re often a sort of hybrid HMO/PPO. Members may need a referral to see a specialist, but they may also have coverage for out-of-network care, though with higher cost sharing.

Although insurers identify plans by type in the plan coverage summaries they're required to provide under the health law, one PPO may offer very different out-of-network coverage than another.

“You have PPOs with really high cost sharing for out-of-network services, which from a consumer perspective seem a lot like HMOs,” says Corlette. Some plans labeled as PPOs don’t offer out-of-network services at all, experts say. On the other hand, some HMOs have an out-of-network option that makes them seem similar to PPOs. 

Then there are EPOs. “People have no idea what an EPO is,” says Jerry Flanagan, lead staff attorney at Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy organization that recently filed a class action lawsuit against Anthem Blue Cross in California. They claim, among other things, that the insurer enrolled people in EPO plans with no out-of-network coverage who believed they were being enrolled in PPO plans that provided such coverage.

“Materials at the time of enrollment and in member’s Explanation of Benefits have clearly stated that the plan was an EPO plan which may not have out-of-network benefits,” said Darrel Ng, a spokesperson for Anthem Blue Cross, in a statement. 

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