HMO vs PPO? Understanding the Difference Before You Choose


One of the more annoying features of the insurance world is its habit of distilling options down to simple sets of letters and then failing to clearly explain what the letters mean. In other words, insurers hide behind jargon and prefer not to explain clearly what you are buying. You are expected to assume the insurer has your interests at heart and pay over your money without a second thought. In many cases it works. Over the years, we have given up the unequal struggle and just say prayers we never fall sick. But, as premium costs have risen, trying to understand the options is back on the menu. So, let’s start with an explanation of HMOs and PPOs. In fact, they both rely on a network of physicians, clinics and hospitals, but they differ significantly in the detail of how they deliver healthcare to you and your family.

A Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) is a network of healthcare professionals that enters into a contract with an insurance company. The insurer offers a captive group of people to refer to the network and, based on the expected volume of business, the network agrees a fixed fee for all the main services on offer. In theory, this works well for everyone. The fees are discounted because of the volume of business, so the insurer saves money and charges lower premiums. This is usually the cheapest form of health plan with very low copayments and, often, no deductibles. But there are problems. HMOs are very reluctant to accept people with existing conditions requiring expensive treatments. They prefer most of their patients to be reasonably healthy. The reason is basic economics. Every physician has to meet a quota of patients in a day. This means spending the shortest possible time on each consultation. Long diagnostic sessions disturb the quota and can result in penalties to both the doctors who miss their numbers and the patients who have slowed down the queue. There are also significant restrictions on patient choice. A nominated primary care doctor decides what referrals shall be made and to whom. HMOs are the cheapest form of care, but you have little control over the treatment you or your family receive.

A Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) uses the same basic approach but, because you pay more, you buy greater control over the treatment. The copayments are around 20% and there are usually deductibles. But you have freedom to choose your own doctors. So long as you go see a physician in the network, you are covered. If you want to see someone outside the network, you usually only pay the difference between the network rate and the actual fees your choice collects.

So, when it comes to cheap health insurance, an HMO is the better option. But if you have the money and a health problem likely to need more extensive treatment, you should opt for a PPO. It always comes back down to your own personal needs and what you can afford. Cheap health insurance always comes with limitations. Read the small print before you buy into any plan and see exactly what you can and cannot do before you agree to buy the policy.