What Is a Healthcare Provider?

Medical provider bumping elbows with a patient, both wearing masks
Medical providers include doctors and nurses, but also pharmacies, hospitals, labs, clinics, and many other entities.

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A healthcare provider is a person or company that provides a healthcare service to you. In other words, your healthcare provider takes care of you.

The term "healthcare provider" is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to a health insurance plan, but health insurance is different from health care. Your health insurance plan will pay your healthcare provider for the services they provide to you, assuming the service is covered and you've met your cost-sharing responsibilities.

The health insurer or health plan is the payer, while the provider is the entity actually treating your medical condition.

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Who Are Healthcare Providers?

The healthcare provider you’re probably the most familiar with is your primary care physician (PCP) or the specialists you see when you need certain specific medical care. But there are all different types of healthcare providers. Any type of healthcare service you might need is provided by some type of healthcare provider.

Here are some non-physician examples of healthcare providers:

  • The physical therapist that helps you to recover from your knee injury
  • The home healthcare company that provides your visiting nurse
  • The durable medical equipment company that provides your home oxygen or wheelchair
  • Your pharmacy
  • The laboratory that draws and processes your blood tests
  • The imaging facility that does your mammograms, X-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • The speech therapist that works with you to make sure you can swallow food safely after a stroke
  • The outpatient surgery clinic where you had your colonoscopy done
  • The specialty laboratory that does your DNA test
  • The urgent care center or walk-in clinic in your neighborhood shopping center
  • The hospital where you receive inpatient (or in some cases, outpatient) care
  • The emergency department that stabilizes you in the event of an accident or serious illness

Why It Matters

In addition to your personal preferences about which providers you’d rather have taking care of you, your choice of providers matters for financial and insurance reasons. 

Most health plans have provider networks. These networks are groups of providers that have agreed to provide services to the health plan’s members at a discounted rate and that have met the quality standards required by your insurer. Your health plan prefers that you use its in-network providers rather than using out-of-network providers.

In fact, health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and exclusive provider organizations (EPOs) generally won’t pay for services you get from a healthcare provider that’s out-of-network except in emergency situations.

Preferred provider organizations (PPOs), and to a lesser extent, point of service (POS) health plans, will usually pay for care provided by out-of-network providers. However, they incentivize you to get your care from their in-network providers by imposing a higher deductible, copayment and/or coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximum when you use an out-of-network provider.

If you like your doctor or other healthcare provider but they’re not in-network with your health plan, you have options that may give you in-network access to your preferred providers:

During your next open enrollment window, you can switch to a health plan that includes them in its network. (This may be easier said than done, depending on the options available to you. If you're enrolled in coverage provided by an employer, your choices will be limited by the options that the employer provides. If you purchase your own coverage in the individual/family marketplace, your choices will be limited by the plan options and type of coverage that insurers make available in your area.)

You can also appeal to your health plan requesting that it cover care you get from this out-of-network provider as though it was in-network care. Your health plan might be willing to do this if you’re in the middle of a complex treatment regimen being administered or managed by this provider, or if your provider is the only local option for providing the treatment you need.

Another reason your plan might allow this is if you can show the plan why your provider is a better choice for this service than an in-network provider.

For example, do you have quality data showing this surgeon has a significantly lower rate of post-op complications than the in-network surgeon? Can you show that this surgeon is significantly more experienced in performing your rare and complicated procedure?

If the in-network surgeon has only done the procedure you need six times, but your out-of-network surgeon has done it twice a week for a decade, you have a chance at convincing your insurer. If you can convince your health plan that using this out-of-network provider might save money in the long run, you may be able to win your appeal.

How to Avoid Surprise Balance Bills (And Federal Relief That's Coming in 2022)

Surprise balance bills happen in emergency situations when a patient is treated by out-of-network providers but had no say in the matter (e.g., they were transported by ambulance to the nearest emergency department, which wasn't in-network with their insurance plan), or when a patient is being treated at an in-network facility but receives treatment or services from an out-of-network provider.

For example, you might have knee surgery at a hospital in your health plan's network, and later find out that the durable medical equipment supplier that the hospital used to supply your brace and crutches isn't contracted with your insurance plan.

So in addition to having to meet your health plan's in-network out-of-pocket maximum, you may also end up paying out-of-network charges for the knee brace and crutches, walker, or wheelchair that you end up with after the surgery.

The more you know about the range of providers involved in medical care, the better prepared you can be, at least in non-emergency situations. A growing number of states have passed laws to limit patients' exposure to balance billing in situations where some providers at a given facility aren't part of the insurance networks with which the facility contracts.

And federal rules take effect in 2022 that eliminate surprise balance billing in emergency situations and in situations where an out-of-network provider performs services at an in-network facility. Ground ambulance changes won't be affected by this new rule (and they account for a significant number of surprise balance bills each year), but the new rule otherwise provides solid consumer protection.

Federal regulations also took effect in 2018, applicable to health plans purchased in the health insurance exchanges, that provide a modicum of protection when patients are subject to surprise balance billing.

Exchange plans are required to apply the out-of-network charges from ancillary providers (i.e., providers who are supplemental to the primary provider who is performing the procedure) towards the patient's in-network cap on out-of-pocket costs unless the insurer provided adequate notice to the patient to let them know that they would be facing out-of-network charges.

But the patient is still responsible for paying the out-of-network charges, and the regulations don't require any sort of cap on those charges. Fortunately, the new rules that take effect in 2022 are much more robust in terms of protecting consumers from surprise balance billing.

Some states had already tackled the problem on their own, but in many states, surprise balance bills are still common. And self-insured group plans are regulated under federal rules rather than state rules. The majority of people with employer-sponsored coverage are enrolled in self-insured plans, and state regulations don't apply to these plans. This is why federal action was needed, and why the regulations that take effect in 2022 will provide much more significant protection than anything states had done on their own.

But regardless of the rules that are in place, the more questions you ask ahead of time, the better off you'll be. Inquire about the insurance network participation of any providers who might treat you—directly, or indirectly, as would be the case with durable medical equipment supplies, radiologists, and labs.

Ask the hospital or clinic if there's an in-network provider option in each case, and state your desire to utilize in-network providers—keeping in mind that "provider" goes well beyond the healthcare provider overseeing your care.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cornell Legal Information Institute. 29 CFR § 825.125 - Definition of health care provider.

  2. Hoadley, Jack; Ahn, Sandy; Lucia, Kevin. ​Balance billing: How are states protecting consumers from unexpected charges? Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & the Center on Health Insurance Reforms (Georgetown University Health Policy Institute).

  3. Kona M. State balance billing protections. The Commonwealth Fund. April 22, 2020.

  4. Federal Register. Department of Health and Human Services. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; HHS notice of benefit and payment parameters for 2017.

  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2020 Employer Health Benefits Survey. October 8, 2020.