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JAMA. 1996 Oct 2;276(13):1039-47.

Differences in 4-year health outcomes for elderly and poor, chronically ill patients treated in HMO and fee-for-service systems. Results from the Medical Outcomes Study.

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  • 1The Health Institute, New England Medical Center, Boston, Mass. 02111, USA.



To compare physical and mental health outcomes of chronically ill adults, including elderly and poor subgroups, treated in health maintenance organization (HMO) and fee-for-service (FFS) systems.


A 4-year observational study of 2235 patients (18 to 97 years of age) with hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), recent acute myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, and depressive disorder sampled from HMO and FFS systems in 1986 and followed up through 1990. Those aged 65 years and older covered under Medicare and low-income patients (200% of poverty) were analyzed separately.


Offices of physicians practicing family medicine, internal medicine, endocrinology, cardiology, and psychiatry, in HMO and FFS systems of care. Types of practices included both prepaid group (72% of patients) and independent practice association (28%) types of HMOs, large multispecialty groups, and solo or small, single-specialty practices in Boston, Mass, Chicago, Ill, and Los Angeles, Calif.


Differences between initial and 4-year follow-up scores of summary physical and mental health scales from the Medical Outcomes Study 36-Item Short-Form Health Survey (SF-36) for all patients and practice settings.


On average, physical health declined and mental health remained stable during the 4-year follow-up period, with physical declines larger for the elderly than for the nonelderly (P<.001). In comparisons between HMO and FFS systems, physical and mental health outcomes did not differ for the average patient; however, they did differ for subgroups of the population differing in age and poverty status. For elderly patients (those aged 65 years and older) treated under Medicare, declines in physical health were more common in HMOs than in FFS plans (54% vs 28%; P<.001). In 1 site, mental health outcomes were better (P<.05) for elderly patients in HMOs relative to FFS but not in 2 other sites. For patients differing in poverty status, opposite patterns of physical health (P<.05) and for mental health (P<.001) outcomes were observed across systems; outcomes favored FFS over HMOs for the poverty group and favored HMOs over FFS for the nonpoverty group.


During the study period, elderly and poor chronically ill patients had worse physical health outcomes in HMOs than in FFS systems; mental health outcomes varied by study site and patient characteristics. Current health care plans should carefully monitor the health outcomes of these vulnerable subgroups.

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