Since 1972, Medicare beneficiaries have had the option of enrolling in a Medicare-qualified health maintenance organization (HMO). Little information exists to inform beneficiaries' choices between the traditional fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare program and an HMO.
To compare the primary care received by seniors in Medicare HMOs with that of seniors in the traditional FFS Medicare program, and among HMOs, and to examine performance differences associated with HMO model-type and profit status.
Data were derived from a cross-sectional observational survey of Medicare beneficiaries 65 years or older in the 13 states with mature, substantial Medicare HMO markets. Only beneficiaries continuously enrolled for 12 months or more in traditional FFS Medicare or a qualified Medicare HMO were eligible. Data were obtained using a 5-stage protocol involving mail and telephone (64% response rate). Analyses included respondents who identified a primary physician and had all required data elements (N = 8828). We compared FFS and HMO performance on 11 summary scales measuring 7 defining characteristics of primary care: (1) access, (2) continuity, (3) integration, (4) comprehensiveness, (5) "whole-person" orientation, (6) clinical interaction, and (7) sustained clinician-patient partnership.
For 9 of 11 indicators, performance favored traditional FFS Medicare over HMOs (P<.001). Financial access favored HMOs (P<.001). Preventive counseling did not differ by system. Network-model HMOs performed more favorably than staff/group–model HMOs on 9 of 11 indicators (P<.001). Few differences were associated with HMO profit status.
The findings are consistent with previous comparisons of indemnity insurance and network-model and staff/group–model HMOs in elderly and nonelderly populations. The stability of results across time, geography, and populations suggests that the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system are enduring attributes of their care. Medicare enrollees seem to face the perennial cost-quality trade-off: that is, deciding whether the advantages of primary care under traditional FFS Medicare are worth the higher out-of-pocket costs.