Disclaimer: I can only speak from my experience and about my particular HMO, and I am not a paid promoter of HMOs.
OK, now that we got that out of the way, let's delve into the world of managed care, as well as how you can best make the HMO work for you.
Advantages of HMOs over PPOs
As one of the people lucky enough to have medical insurance, I am very happy with my HMO. Some primary care physician groups do not have quality doctors, I'm sure, but I selected my primary care physician based on a group affliated with a first-rate hospital.
Unlike the horror stories you hear in the media, my HMO doctors are outstanding.
Through my HMO, I was able to get all my cancer treatment -- chemo, surgery, radiation, etc. -- free of charge. Trust me, I saw the statements of all the charges I would have owed -- enough to give anyone heart trouble and a new set of specialists -- and I know that with a PPO I would've had to pay a certain portion of it, and a small portion would've still been a ga-zillion dollars.
Also, what PPOs don't emphasize is that they have a ceiling, where they won't pay anymore after a certain amount of funds are exhausted. The cap is a high amount, so it's not a problem for routine problems and conditions, but cancer treatments and reconstructive surgery would have driven a sledgehammer through a PPO's ceiling, and expenses would've gone through the roof.
HMO: That's A-Okay
Another little-known fact is this: many HMOs will cover a medically necessary procedure done by out-of-network doctors -- if the primary care physician, also known as the gateway doctor, advocates on your behalf. That is why it's so important to have an excellent relationship with your gateway doctor and to hire the best one for your needs.
When you have an excellent gateway doctor, the HMO experience can be wonderful. That's the key: finding and hiring that gateway doctor to help you help the HMO meet your needs.
In my situation, I needed a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Because I was young, fit, and active, a double tram flap procedure was not an option because too much abdominal muscle would be removed, and I might not ever be able to sit up on my own. According to my doctors, the procedure I needed to reconstruct both breasts was a Diep flap, a more cutting-edge surgery (pun intended), designed to preserve as much of my abdominal wall as possible.
One doctor of reconstructive surgery who was recommended to me by many medical professionals was out of my HMO network, although affiliated with my hospital. I wanted him as my surgeon, but as he was out of network, my gateway doctor said that in order to make a case to the HMO that I needed the skilled Diep flap surgeon, I had to first see the in-network plastic surgeon to ask his recommendations. While I dreaded this pain-in-the-butt step, it had to be done, explained my doctor, as she and my oncologist were drafting their letters on why I needed the Diep flap procedure.
Here was the key on which my fate would turn: If the in-network plastic surgeon could do the Diep flap, then he would be my surgeon. However, when I saw him, he said I needed the Diep flap, but he is not skilled in this arena, and I'd need to go out of network. He drafted a letter on my behalf to the HMO, stating that I needed this procedure that he did not perform.
A few weeks later, the HMO came to its conclusion: It would cover the ENTIRE cost of the Diep flap, hospital stay, and all followups as needed. And, because my surgeon needed a doctor skilled in this type of surgery to help him (also out-of-network), the HMO paid for that additional surgeon as well.
Cost to me: 0 cents. Cost to my quality of life: priceless.
Whether you have an HMO or PPO, though, the key is to have the right doctors in place, so if a time of medical need arises, they will advocate for you.
Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris College in the Chicago area. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. She also blogs on the adventures of her cats, Hemi and Cosette, at http://www.catterchatter.blogspot.com/.