Objective: To address how well health maintenance organizations (HMOs) meet the needs of almost 700,000 children with disabilities due to chronic conditions enrolled in these plans.
Design: A cross-sectional survey.
Measurements/main results: Health maintenance organizations offered better protection than conventional plans against out-of-pocket expenses and were much more likely than fee-for-service plans to cover ancillary therapies, home care, outpatient mental health care, and medical case management. In addition, few HMOs maintained exclusions for preexisting conditions. Other aspects of HMO policies, however, were found to operate against the interest of families with chronically ill children. In particular, HMOs commonly made specialty services available only when significant improvement was expected within a short period. Also, HMOs typically placed limits on the amount and duration of mental health, ancillary services, and certain other services frequently needed by chronically ill children. Probably the most serious problems for chronically ill children enrolled in HMOs were the lack of choice among and access to appropriate specialty providers.
Participants: Individual HMO plans.
Selection procedure: A sample of 95 geographically representative HMOs were selected; 59 (62%) responded.
Conclusions: Health maintenance organizations offer several advantages over traditional fee-for-service plans for families whose children have special health needs. However, the results also indicate that HMOs do not always operate effectively as service provision systems for these children. To a large extent, the availability and quality of services available to a child with special needs is likely to depend on the parents' ability to maneuver within the system.