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Today, health care costs are high, and getting higher. Who will pay your bills if you have a serious accident or a major illness? You buy health insurance for the same reason you buy other kinds of insurance, to protect yourself financially. With health insurance, you protect yourself and your family in case you need medical care that could be very expensive. You can't predict what your medical bills will be. In a good year, your costs may be low. But if you become ill, your bills could be very high. If you have insurance, many of your costs are covered by a third-party payer, not by you. A third-party payer can be an insurance company or, in some cases, it can be your employer.
Fee-for-Service (Indemnity Plan)
This is the traditional kind of health care policy. Insurance companies pay fees for the services provided to the insured people covered by the policy. This type of health insurance offers the most choices of doctors and hospitals. You can choose any doctor you wish and change doctors any time. You can go to any hospital in any part of the country.
With fee-for-service, the insurer only pays for part of your doctor and hospital bills. This is what you pay:
To receive payment for fee-for-service claims, you may have to fill out forms and send them to your insurer. Sometimes your doctor's office will do this for you. You also need to keep receipts for drugs and other medical costs. You are responsible for keeping track of your medical expenses.
There are limits as to how much an insurance company will pay for your claim if both you and your spouse file for it under two different group insurance plans. A coordination of benefit clause usually limits benefits under two plans to no more than 100 percent of the claim.
Most fee-for-service plans have a "cap," the most you will have to pay for medical bills in any one year. You reach the cap when your out-of-pocket expenses (for your deductible and your coinsurance) total a certain amount. It may be as low as $1,000 or as high as $5,000. Then the insurance company pays the full amount in excess of the cap for the items your policy says it will cover. The cap does not include what you pay for your monthly premium.
Some services are limited or not covered at all. You need to check on preventive health care coverage such as immunizations and well-child care.
There are two kinds of fee-for-service coverage: basic and major medical. Basic protection pays toward the costs of a hospital room and care while you are in the hospital. It covers some hospital services and supplies, such as x-rays and prescribed medicine. Basic coverage also pays toward the cost of surgery, whether it is performed in or out of the hospital, and for some doctor visits. Major medical insurance takes over where your basic coverage leaves off. It covers the cost of long, high-cost illnesses or injuries.
Some policies combine basic and major medical coverage into one plan. This is sometimes called a "comprehensive plan." Check your policy to make sure you have both kinds of protection.
What Is a "Customary" Fee?
Most insurance plans will pay only what they call a reasonable and customary fee for a particular service. If your doctor charges $1,000 for a hernia repair while most doctors in your area charge only $600, you will be billed for the $400 difference. This is in addition to the deductible and coinsurance you would be expected to pay. To avoid this additional cost, ask your doctor to accept your insurance company's payment as full payment. Or shop around to find a doctor who will. Otherwise you will have to pay the rest yourself.
Questions to Ask About Fee-for-Service (Indemnity) Insurance
Health maintenance organizations are prepaid health plans. As an HMO member, you pay a monthly premium. In exchange, the HMO provides comprehensive care for you and your family, including doctors' visits, hospital stays, emergency care, surgery, lab tests, x-rays, and therapy.
The HMO arranges for this care either directly in its own group practice and/or through doctors and other health care professionals under contract. Usually, your choices of doctors and hospitals are limited to those that have agreements with the HMO to provide care. However, exceptions are made in emergencies or when medically necessary.
There may be a small co-payment for each office visit, such as $5 for a doctor's visit or $25 for hospital emergency room treatment. Your total medical costs will likely be lower and more predictable in an HMO than with fee-for-service insurance.
Because HMOs receive a fixed fee for your covered medical care, it is in their interest to make sure you get basic health care for problems before they become serious. HMOs typically provide preventive care, such as office visits, immunizations, well-baby checkups, mammograms, and physicals. The range of services covered vary in HMOs, so it is important to compare available plans. Some services, such as outpatient mental health care, often are provided only on a limited basis.
Many people like HMOs because they do not require claim forms for office visits or hospital stays. Instead, members present a card, like a credit card, at the doctor's office or hospital. However, in an HMO you may have to wait longer for an appointment than you would with a fee-for-service plan.
In some HMOs, doctors are salaried and they all have offices in an HMO building at one or more locations in your community as part of a prepaid group practice. In others, independent groups of doctors contract with the HMO to take care of patients. These are called individual practice associations (IPAs) and they are made up of private physicians in private offices who agree to care for HMO members. You select a doctor from a list of participating physicians that make up the IPA network. If you are thinking of switching into an IPA-type of HMO, ask your doctor if he or she participates in the plan.
In almost all HMOs, you either are assigned or you choose one doctor to serve as your primary care doctor. This doctor monitors your health and provides most of your medical care, referring you to specialists and other health care professionals as needed. You usually cannot see a specialist without a referral from your primary care doctor who is expected to manage the care you receive. This is one way that HMOs can limit your choice.
Before choosing an HMO, it is a good idea to talk to people you know who are enrolled in it. Ask them how they like the services and care given.
Questions to Ask About an HMO
The preferred provider organization is a combination of traditional fee-for-service and an HMO. Like an HMO, there are a limited number of doctors and hospitals to choose from. When you use those providers (sometimes called "preferred" providers, other times called "network" providers), most of your medical bills are covered.
When you go to doctors in the PPO, you present a card and do not have to fill out forms. Usually there is a small copayment for each visit. For some services, you may have to pay a deductible and coinsurance.
As with an HMO, a PPO requires that you choose a primary care doctor to monitor your health care. Most PPOs cover preventive care. This usually includes visits to the doctor, well-baby care, immunizations, and mammograms.
In a PPO, you can use doctors who are not part of the plan and still receive some coverage. At these times, you will pay a larger portion of the bill yourself (and also fill out the claims forms). Some people like this option because even if their doctor is not a part of the network, it means they don't have to change doctors to join a PPO.
Questions to Ask About a PPO
Many HMOs offer plan members the option to self direct care, as one would under an indemnity or PPO plan, rather than get referrals from primary care physicians. An HMO with this opt-out provision is known as a point-of-service (POS) plan. How the plan functions (i.e., like an HMO or like an indemnity plan) depends on whether individual plan members use their primary care physician or self direct their care at the "point of service."
To illustrate this point, this is how these plans typically work. When medical care is needed, the individual plan member essentially has up to two or three choices, depending on the particular health plan. The plan member can choose to go through his or her primary care physician, in which case services will be covered under HMO guidelines (i.e., usually a co-payment will be required). Alternatively, the plan member can access care through a PPO provider and the services will be covered under in-network PPO rules (i.e., usually a co-payment and coinsurance will be required). Lastly, if the plan member chooses to obtain services from a provider outside of the HMO and PPO networks, the services will be reimbursed according to out-of-network rules (i.e., usually a co-payment and higher coinsurance charge will be required). Because people who belong to POS plans are responsible for deciding how to access care within the various options, it is important that they understand the financial implications of these choices.
Most Americans get health insurance through their jobs or are covered because a family member has insurance at work. This is called group insurance. Group insurance is generally the least expensive kind. In many cases, the employer pays part or all of the cost.
Some employers offer only one health insurance plan. Some offer a choice of plans: a fee-for-service plan, a health maintenance organization (HMO), or a preferred provider organization (PPO), for example. Employers with 25 or more workers are required by Federal law to offer employees the chance to enroll in an HMO.
What happens if you or your family member leaves the job? You will lose your employer- supported group coverage. It may be possible to keep the same policy, but you will have to pay for it yourself. This will certainly cost you more than group coverage for the same, or less, protection.
A Federal law makes it possible for most people to continue their group health coverage for a period of time. Called COBRA (for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985), the law requires that if you work for a business of 20 or more employees and leave your job or are laid off, you can continue to get health coverage for at least 18 months. You will be charged a higher premium than when you were working.
You also will be able to get insurance under COBRA if your spouse was covered but now you are widowed or divorced. If you were covered under your parents' group plan while you were in school, you also can continue in the plan for up to 18 months under COBRA until you find a job that offers you your own health insurance.
Not all employers offer health insurance. You might find this to be the case with your job, especially if you work for a small business or work part-time. If your employer does not offer health insurance, you might be able to get group insurance through membership in a labor union, professional association, club, or other organization. Many organizations offer health insurance plans to members.
If your employer does not offer group insurance, or if the insurance offered is very limited, you can buy an individual policy. You can get fee-for-service, HMO, or PPO protection. But you should compare your options and shop carefully because coverage and costs vary from company to company. Individual plans may not offer benefits as broad as those in group plans.
If you get a non-cancelable policy (also called a guaranteed renewable policy), then you will receive individual insurance under that policy as long as you keep paying the monthly premium. The insurance company can raise the cost, but cannot cancel your coverage. Many companies now offer a conditionally renewable policy. This means that the insurance company can cancel all policies like yours, not just yours. This protects you from being singled out. But it doesn't protect you from losing coverage.
Before you buy any health insurance policy, make sure you know what it will pay for...and what it won't. To find out about individual health insurance plans, you can call insurance companies, HMOs, and PPOs in your community, or speak to your insurance agent.
Tips when shopping for individual insurance:
Medicare is the Federal health insurance program for Americans age 65 and older and for certain disabled Americans. If you are eligible for Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits and are age 65, you and your spouse automatically qualify for Medicare.
Medicare has three parts: hospital insurance, known as Part A, supplementary medical insurance, known as Part B, which provides payments for doctors and related services and supplies ordered by the doctor, and prescription drug coverage, known as Part D which covers both brand-name and generic prescription drugs at participating pharmacies in your area. If you are eligible for Medicare, Part A is free, but you must pay a premium for Part B and Part D.
Medicare will pay for many of your health care expenses, but not all of them. In particular, Medicare does not cover most nursing home care, long-term care services in the home, or prescription drugs. There are also special rules on when Medicare pays your bills that apply if you have employer group health insurance coverage through your own job or the employment of a spouse.
Medicare usually operates on a fee-for-service basis. HMOs and similar forms of prepaid health care plans are now available to Medicare enrollees in some locations.
The best source of information on the Medicare program is the Medicare Handbook. This booklet explains how the Medicare program works and what your benefits are. To order a free copy, go to: www.medicare.gov. You also can contact your local Social Security office for information.
Some people who are covered by Medicare buy private insurance, called "Medigap" policies, to pay the medical bills that Medicare doesn't cover. Some Medigap policies cover Medicare's deductibles; most pay the coinsurance amount. Some also pay for health services not covered by Medicare. There are 10 standard plans from which you can choose. (Some States may have fewer than 10.) If you buy a Medigap policy, make sure you do not purchase more than one.
You need to shop carefully before deciding on the best policy to fit your needs. You may get another booklet, Guide to Health Insurance for People with Medicare, to help you in making the right choice. To order a free copy, go to:www.medicare.gov.
Another good source of information on the same topic is The Consumer's Guide to Medicare Supplement Insurance. To order a free copy, go to: www.medicare.gov.
Medicaid provides health care coverage for some low-income people who cannot afford it. This includes people who are eligible because they are aged, blind, or disabled or certain people in families with dependent children. Medicaid is a Federal program that is operated by the States, and each State decides who is eligible and the scope of health services offered.
General information on the Medicaid program is given in the Medicaid Fact Sheet. For a free copy, go to:www.medicare.gov. For specifics on Medicaid eligibility and the health services offered, contact your State Medicaid Program Office.