How to Choose Between an HMO, PPO, and EPO Health Plan

Open enrollment during this time of year means selecting a health plan. What's the difference between an HMO, EPO, and PPO? How can you tell what is the best option for you and your family?

Sanaz Majd, MD
5-minute read
Episode #225

It’s open enrollment time. And selecting a health plan is a decision you may need to make, perhaps leaving you baffled and confused to hear some of the frustrating and unrecognizable health care lingo. HMO, PPO, EPO—what do they really mean? How do they differ? How can you quickly select what is right for you and your family? The acronyms certainly don't help!

Comparing and contrasting the copays and monthly premiums may not necessarily be the best method of decision making. Some plan differences may be subtle and not significantly affect the care you receive or your pocket book. But other features of these plans can be actually substantial, costing hundreds to potentially thousands of dollars a year if you are not careful.

So it’s vital to learn exactly what you are selecting for you and your family. Let's learn about the most common types of health plans and how to discern what is more appropriate for you.

There are various plan types, but most plans belong to one of the following three groups:

HMOs = Health Maintenance Organizations

HMO plans are often less costly than typical PPOs, but not always. The goal here is to keep cost down for both patients and the health care organization. The physicians are encouraged to practice using evidence-based medicine and to avoid ordering unnecessary tests, especially if their costly orders would not change the doctor’s plan and outcome for the patient. .

For instance, MRIs are one of the most costly tests available. But patients sometimes request, let’s say a knee MRI to simply “know” if there’s a ligament or meniscal tear. But unless the patient is contemplating surgical options, an MRI does not provide useful information in many instances and doesn’t change the outcome. I’ve discussed  the outcome of a study that showed that sham meniscal surgical repair is comparable to a real one. Check out that article to learn the details. In a nutshell, whether there’s a tear or not, surgery is not always the best or necessary option and patients seem to do just as well in the long run if they opt for conservative therapy, such as physical therapy and the tincture of time.

Hence, doctors employed by an HMO are encouraged to practice evidence-based medicine, which decreases unnecessary tests and helps keep costs down for everyone.

In an HMO setting, your Primary Care Physician (PCP) becomes the most integral and central person involved in your health. You will need referrals sent by your PCP for all specialists. But patients do not always know when/if they need a particular specialist. And even if they do, they don’t always know who to go to. So this referral requirement is typically not a decision breaker. For instance, if your blood test reveals that your kidney functions are mildly diminished, patients don’t always need a specialist right away. Your PCP knows at what point you should seek specialist care. Or if you have a new rash, there’s often no need to see the dermatologist—primary care doctors are typically well-trained in dermatology and they see and treat common skin conditions every day.

HMO patients are required to stay within a network of providers, otherwise you will need to pay, often fully out-of-pocket. Therefore, if you are under a particular specialist’s care and you would like to continue to see the same doctor, if they are not part of the HMO network, you will be required to switch your care to an in-network specialist.

Sometimes a referral for some preventative services may not be required—for services like pap smears and mammograms, for instance. OB/GYN referrals are often unnecessary as well, so if you are pregnant, you can directly schedule an appointment with their department.

Doctor copays are standard within an HMO: one to see your primary care doctor and one for any specialist. And the more the patients utilize the system, the higher the expense for the medical group. Therefore, the goal with an HMO model is to keep you as healthy as possible in order to decrease the utilization of healthcare and hence keep costs down. 

PPOs = Preferred Provider Organizations

PPO plans provide a little more flexibility, at least in terms of referrals, which are not required by your PCP. You can simply call to schedule an appointment with a specialist of your choosing. But be certain they accept your health plan first, because there is often still a preferred network of doctors. But patients can go outside of the network for a higher copay and/or share of cost if they choose to.

As a result, PPO’s are often more costly. Out-of-pocket costs are typically higher with PPOs, and understanding what your deductible and copays for office visits, labs, and tests are crucial. Think of it more as a “fee for service” model, in which providers and/or the medical group they are employed with get paid per procedure and office visit. More procedures and services mean higher compensation.

EPOs = Exclusive Provider Organizations

EPOs are a hybrid of a PPO and HMO, incorporating features of both. The essence of an EPO is to require patients to stay within a network of providers like an HMO, but they do not need a referral to see those doctors within that same network.

So, what should you think about when choosing between these three plans?


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.