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“An Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) will generally only pay for your care if you use the providers within the plan’s network, except in medical emergencies,” says Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives at Families USA, a national nonpartisan consumer health care advocacy organization.
The EPO won’t help pay for any services received out-of-network. The exception to this is emergencies or urgent care situations, when the EPO may help pay for services even if you are treated at an out-of-network facility. You may be able to get coverage at out-of-network providers outside of emergency situations if you contact your EPO for preapproval first.
With an EPO insurance plan, you’re only covered for the care you receive at in-network providers, except in emergencies or if you get preapproval from your insurance plan.
“Unlike in an HMO, in an EPO, you might not need a primary care provider’s referral to see a specialist, as long as you stay within the plan’s network,” Fish-Parcham says.
“You can check with the plan or with your state insurance department about a few exceptional circumstances when an EPO might pay out of network, such as if it does not have adequate provider availability in a given specialty area, or if you have received a ‘surprise bill’ from an out-of-network provider while in an in-network hospital.” Fish-Parcham adds that new federal rules about “surprise bills” go into effect in January 2022.
While referrals usually aren’t necessary with an EPO, you may need preapproval from your EPO provider before receiving many health services.
Costs can vary with EPO insurance plans, but as long as you use only in-network providers, your overall cost with an EPO should be less than the total cost of the services since your insurance provider will reimburse you for a percentage of the treatment you receive up to a certain level.
If you go out-of-network, you will need to pay the full cost of the services you receive, unless it’s during an emergency. Otherwise, you must receive preapproval from your insurance provider before getting treatment.
An EPO is a hybrid between HMOs and PPOs, says Rick Louie, managing director of Hospital Pricing Specialists. “Similar to an HMO, an EPO requires members to stay within the network of physicians and hospitals that participate in the plan.” And like a PPO, an EPO has benefits where members do not need a referral to see specialists within their network.
Like an HMO, you’re expected to use only in-network providers in an EPO. If you go out-of-network, you will be responsible for the full cost of the services you receive, unless it’s during an emergency or you get preapproval from your provider. An EPO is different from a PPO, which provides more coverage for plan network providers, called “preferred providers.” You still get coverage at out-of-network providers in a PPO; you just have to pay more for the services received there.
With PPOs, you can usually choose to have a primary care provider if you want. With an HMO, you must have a primary care doctor you visit first and see to get referrals to specialists. With an EPO, you often do not need to have a primary care provider.
Since you don’t usually have a primary care physician in an EPO, you can often see specialists or get lab tests without needing a referral as long as you go to in-network providers.
You may need to get preapproval from your EPO provider for certain services before you can receive treatment, however. This is also true of HMO plans but not PPOs, which usually let you get treatment without preapproval.
How you pay also varies by insurance plan type. With an EPO, like an HMO, you usually pay a copay or flat fee for the services you receive. This is distinct from a PPO, which generally sets an annual deductible and may also have separate deductibles for hospital care and prescription medications.
Like any type of insurance, there are benefits and drawbacks to EPO insurance: