How do HMOs achieve savings? The effectiveness of one organization's strategies

Health Serv Res. 1998 Apr;33(1):79-99.


Objective: To examine how a group practice used organizational strategies rather than provider-level incentives to achieve savings for health maintenance organization (HMO) compared to fee-for-service (FFS) patients.

Data sources/study setting: A large group practice with a group model HMO also treating FFS patients. Data sources were all patient encounter records, demographic files, and clinic records covering 3.5 years (1986-1989). The clinic's procedures to record services and charges were identical for FFS and HMO patients. All FFS and HMO patients under age 65 who received any outpatient services during approximately 100,000 episodes of the seven study illnesses were eligible.

Study design: Using an explanatory case design, we first compared HMO and FFS rates of resource utilization, in standardized dollars, which measured the impact of organizational strategies to influence patient and provider behavior. We then examined the effect of HMO insurance and organizational measures to explain total outpatient use. Key variables were standardized charges for all outpatient services and the HMO's strategies.

Principal findings: Patient and provider behavior responded to organizational strategies designed to achieve savings for HMO patients; for instance, HMO patients used midlevel providers and generalists more often and ER and specialists less often. Overall HMO savings, adjusted for case mix, were explained by the specialty of the physicians the patients first visited and appeared to affect patients with average health more than others.

Conclusion: Organizational strategies, without resort to differential financial incentives to each provider, resulted in lower rates of outpatient services for HMO patients. Savings from outpatient use, especially for common diseases that rarely require hospitalization, can be substantial.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cost Savings / methods*
  • Fee-for-Service Plans / economics
  • Fee-for-Service Plans / organization & administration
  • Fee-for-Service Plans / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Group Practice / economics*
  • Group Practice / organization & administration
  • Group Practice / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Maintenance Organizations / economics*
  • Health Maintenance Organizations / organization & administration
  • Health Maintenance Organizations / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Illinois
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Organizational Innovation
  • Patient Care Team / economics
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Physician Incentive Plans / economics
  • Reimbursement, Incentive
  • Utilization Review