Frequently Asked Questions



Making Sense of Health Insurance
The term health insurance refers to a wide variety of insurance policies. These range from policies that cover the costs of doctors and hospitals to those that meet a specific need, such as paying for long-term care. Even disability insurance - which replaces lost income if you can't work because of illness or accident - is considered health insurance, even though it's not specifically for medical expenses.

But when people talk about health insurance, they usually mean the kind of insurance offered by employers to employees, the kind that covers medical bills, surgery, and hospital expenses. You may have heard this kind of health insurance referred to as comprehensive or major medical policies, alluding to the broad protection they offer. But the fact is, neither of these terms is particularly helpful to the consumer.

Today, when people talk about broad health care coverage, instead of using the term "major medical," they are more likely to refer to fee-for-service or managed care. These terms apply to different kinds of coverage or health plans. Moreover, you'll also hear about specific kinds of managed care plans: health maintenance organizations or HMOs, preferred provider organizations or PPOs, and point-of-service or POS plans.

While fee-for-service and managed care plans differ in important ways, in some ways they are similar. Both cover an array of medical, surgical, and hospital expenses. Most offer some coverage for prescription drugs, and some include coverage for dentists and other providers. But there are many important differences that will make one or the other form of coverage the right one for you.

The section below is designed to acquaint you with the basics of fee-for-service and managed care plans. But remember: The detailed differences between one plan and another can only be understood by careful reading of the materials provided by insurers, your employee benefits specialist, or your agent or broker.


Fee-for-Service
This type of coverage generally assumes that the medical provider (usually a doctor or hospital) will be paid a fee for each service rendered to the patient - you or a family member covered under your policy. With fee-for-service insurance, you go to the doctor of your choice and you or your doctor or hospital submits a claim to your insurance company for reimbursement. You will only receive reimbursement for "covered" medical expenses, the ones listed in your benefits summary.

When a service is covered under your policy, you can expect to be reimbursed for some, but generally not all, of the cost. How much you will receive depends on the provisions of the policy on coinsurance and deductibles. Here's how it works:
  • The portion of the covered medical expenses you pay is called "coinsurance."
    Although there are variations, fee-for-service policies often reimburse doctor bills at 80 percent of the "reasonable and customary charge." (This is the prevailing cost of a medical service in a given geographic area.) You pay the other 20 percent - your coinsurance.
    However, if a medical provider charges more than the reasonable and customary fee, you will have to pay the difference. For example, if the reasonable and customary fee for a medical service is $100, the insurer will pay $80. If your doctor charged $100, you will pay $20. But if the doctor charged $105, you will pay $25. Note that many fee-for-service plans pay hospital expenses in full; some reimburse at the 80/20 level as described above.
  • Deductibles are the amount of the covered expenses you must pay each year before the insurer starts to reimburse you. These might range from$100 to $300 per year per individual, or $500 or more per family. Generally, the higher the deductible, the lower the premiums, which are the monthly, quarterly, or annual payments for the insurance.
  • Policies typically have an out-of-pocket maximum. This means that once your expenses reach a certain amount in a given calendar year, the reasonable and customary fee for covered benefits will be paid in full by the insurer. (If your doctor bills you more than the reasonable and customary charge, you may still have to pay a portion of the bill.) Note that Medicare limits how much a physician may charge you above the usual amount.
  • There also may be lifetime limits on benefits paid under the policy. Most experts recommend that you look for a policy whose lifetime limit is at least $1 million. Anything less may prove to be inadequate.


Managed Care

The three major types of managed care plans are health maintenance organizations (HMOs), preferred provider organizations (PPOs), and point-of-service (POS) plans.

Managed care plans generally provide comprehensive health services to their members, and offer financial incentives for patients to use the providers who belong to the plan. In managed care plans, instead of paying separately for each service that you receive, your coverage is paid in advance. This is called prepaid care.

For example, you may decide to join a local HMO where you pay a monthly or quarterly premium. That premium is the same whether you use the plan's services or not. The plan may charge a copayment for certain services - for example, $10 for an office visit, or $5 for every prescription. So, if you join this HMO, you may find that you have few out-of-pocket expenses for medical care - as long as you use doctors or hospitals that participate in or are part of the HMO. Your share may be only the small copayments; generally, you will not have deductibles or coinsurance.

One of the interesting things about HMOs is that they deliver care directly to patients. Patients sometimes go to a medical facility to see the nurses and doctors or to a specific doctor's office. Another common model is a network of individual practitioners. In these individual practice associations (IPAs), you will get your care in a physician's office.

If you belong to an HMO, typically you must receive your medical care through the plan. Generally, you will select a primary care physician who coordinates your care. Primary care physicians may be family practice doctors, internists, pediatricians, or other types of doctors. The primary care physician is responsible for referring you to specialists when needed. While most of these specialists will be "participating providers" in the HMO, there are circumstances in which patients enrolled in an HMO may be referred to providers outside the HMO network and still receive coverage.

PPOs and POS plans are categorized as managed care plans. (Indeed, many people call POS plans "an HMO with a point-of-service option.") From the consumer's point of view, these plans combine features of fee-for-service and HMOs. They offer more flexibility than HMOs, but premiums are likely to be somewhat higher.

With a PPO or a POS plan, unlike most HMOs, you will get some reimbursement if you receive a covered service from a provider who is not in the plan. Of course, choosing a provider outside the plan's network will cost you more than choosing a provider in the network. These plans will act like fee-for-service plans and charge you coinsurance when you go outside the network.

What is the difference between a PPO and a POS plan? A POS plan has primary care physicians who coordinate patient care; and in most cases, PPO plans do not. But there are exceptions!

HMOs and PPOs have contracts with doctors, hospitals, and other providers. They have negotiated certain fees with these providers - and, as long as you get your care from these providers, they should not ask you for additional payment. (Of course, if your plan requires a copayment at the time you receive care, you will have to pay that.)

Always look carefully at the description of the plans you are considering for the conditions of payment. Check with your employer, your benefits manager, or your state department of insurance to find out about laws that may regulate who is responsible for payment.

Admiral Health Insurance Services is a business-to-consumer insurance agency that delivers Web-based, insurance information to individuals, families and small businesses who are in need of insurance information. Admiral Health Insurance Services integrated suite of online services facilitates a comprehensive search and review of leading insurance companies.

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