Health Insurance

Straight Medicaid vs. Managed Medicaid - Which is Best?

Khang T. Vuong, MHA
Khang T. Vuong, MHA1 Sep 2023

Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid are both state and federally-funded programs aimed at providing health insurance coverage for low-income individuals. Both cover a broad range of health services with eligibility primarily based on income level and family size, among other factors. Differences lie in service delivery and provider flexibility. Straight Medicaid operates via a fee-for-service model, paying healthcare providers directly per rendered service, whereas Managed Medicaid contracts with private healthcare organizations that are paid a fixed amount per enrollee. 

Enrollees of Straight Medicaid have more flexibility in provider choice while Managed Medicaid enrollees must stick to providers within their assigned network. The two also vary in cost structures and care coordination initiatives. Managed Medicaid often emphasizes care coordination with additional services like case management, unlike Straight Medicaid.

Comparing Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid

Key Similarities between Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid: Effects on Enrollees

Core Purpose: Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid share a fundamental purpose: to provide health insurance coverage to eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults, and people with disabilities. They are both state and federally-funded programs targeted at improving access to healthcare for the most vulnerable populations.

Coverage Scope: Both Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid cover a broad range of health services. These typically include outpatient care, inpatient care, home health services, prescription drugs, maternity care, and mental health services. The extent of coverage can, however, vary from state to state depending on each state's Medicaid policies.

Eligibility: The eligibility criteria for both Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid are generally the same. They primarily depend on income level, family size, disability status, and other specific circumstances (source: However, each state has some discretion over the precise income thresholds and eligibility requirements.

What Are the Differences between Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid?

Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid both aim to provide health coverage for low-income individuals and families, but they operate differently and their impact on enrollees varies.

  • Delivery of Services: In Straight Medicaid, also known as fee-for-service Medicaid, the government pays healthcare providers directly for each service they provide to Medicaid enrollees. On the other hand, Managed Medicaid contracts with private health care organizations, known as managed care organizations (MCOs). The state pays these MCOs a fixed amount per enrollee, and the MCOs then coordinate and pay for the health services their enrollees need.
  • Choice of Providers: With Straight Medicaid, enrollees typically have a wider choice of healthcare providers. They can see any provider that accepts Medicaid. However, in Managed Medicaid, enrollees generally must see providers that are in their MCO's network, which may limit their choices.
  • Cost to the Enrollee: Both Straight and Managed Medicaid aim to keep out-of-pocket costs low for enrollees. However, the cost structures can differ. Straight Medicaid may have small co-pays for some services, while Managed Medicaid often has no co-pays but might require co-insurance or deductibles.
  • Care Coordination: Managed Medicaid often emphasizes care coordination and may offer additional services like case management to help enrollees manage their health conditions. Straight Medicaid typically does not provide this level of care coordination.
AspectStraight MedicaidManaged Medicaid
AdministrationState-administeredRun through private insurance plans
Provider NetworkBroad choice of providers, any Medicaid-approved providerLimited to network providers
CostsGenerally no premiumsSome plans may have low premiums
Prior AuthorizationRareMore common
Ease of UseMay require more paperworkSimplified through the managed plan
CoverageState-determined standard benefitsVaries, but must meet state minimums
ReferralsGenerally not requiredOften required for specialists
Pharmacy BenefitsStandard state formularyPlan-specific formulary
Care CoordinationLimited or noneUsually integrated
EnrollmentAutomatically enrolled when eligibleMust choose or be assigned a plan

Costs associated with Straight and Managed Medicaid

The costs for Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid depend on the state’s Medicaid plan and specific individual circumstances. Generally, Medicaid programs may require small co-payments for some services. However, many essential services are typically covered without any cost to the beneficiary. Managed Medicaid programs might have different cost-sharing arrangements, depending on the terms of the state contracts with the MCOs.

Choosing Between Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid

Straight Medicaid might be a better option when beneficiaries want the flexibility to choose their healthcare providers. This might be particularly beneficial for those with specialist needs or an established relationship with a specific provider. Managed Medicaid could be a better choice for individuals who need help managing chronic conditions, coordinating care among several providers, or navigating the healthcare system. The MCOs in Managed Medicaid are designed to provide this support.

Your needsStraight MedicaidManaged MedicaidBetter Fit
Comprehensive Care NeededMust coordinate between multiple providers; potentially more freedom in choosing them.Care is coordinated through a managed care network; one primary care physician generally manages referrals.Managed Medicaid may offer better-coordinated care.
Rural Area ResidenceMay have more providers accepting Straight Medicaid in remote areas.Limited provider network may not have as many options in rural areas.Straight Medicaid may offer more flexibility in rural settings.
Specialized TreatmentMore freedom to seek specialists but must coordinate care yourself.May require a referral and network limitations might restrict access to specialists.Straight Medicaid may offer quicker access to specialists.
Existing Medical ConditionsNo change needed if providers accept Medicaid; continuity of care may be easier.May need to switch providers if they are not in the network; could disrupt ongoing treatment.Straight Medicaid may be better for maintaining current providers.
Preference for Brand-Name DrugsFormulary can vary, but generally flexible.Formulary may be restricted by the managed care plan.Straight Medicaid may offer more drug options.
Ease of UseMust manage billing and paperwork from multiple providers.One source for most billing and paperwork, usually the managed care organization.Managed Medicaid may offer simpler billing and paperwork.
Long-Term Care NeedsPotentially more options and control for long-term care.May have integrated long-term care services but limited to network providers.Depends on individual long-term care needs and provider options.
Relatively Healthy IndividualMay not require extensive coordination of care; more freedom in choosing occasional healthcare providers.Simplified billing and paperwork; added features may be more applicable for preventive care.For a relatively healthy individual, the better fit could be a matter of personal preference for simplicity vs. freedom in provider choice.
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Special Considerations: Pregnancy and Medicaid

Both Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid offer comprehensive pregnancy coverage. This includes prenatal care, delivery, and postnatal care. Consider the availability of preferred doctors or hospitals, the need for special services, and the geographical region. Managed Medicaid often works with a network of providers, which might limit the choice of doctors or hospitals. Straight Medicaid usually offers greater flexibility in choosing providers. Check for potential co-pays or fees for services. While Medicaid typically covers pregnancy-related costs, there could be minimal cost-sharing in some cases.

Women can apply for Medicaid assistance at any time during pregnancy. They may also qualify for expedited services due to the nature of their medical need. Some states offer temporary Medicaid coverage for pregnant women who meet specific income guidelines, ensuring immediate access to critical prenatal care. Depending on the state, Medicaid coverage for pregnant women can often continue up to 60 days postpartum. After this period, eligibility requirements may change.

Understanding Straight Medicaid

Straight Medicaid, also known as Traditional Medicaid, is a state and federally funded health insurance program designed to provide healthcare coverage to low-income individuals and families. This program is operated directly by the state and offers a wide range of healthcare services from participating providers Straight Medicaid operates on a fee-for-service system where healthcare providers are paid directly by the state for each service provided to Medicaid beneficiaries. Enrollees have the flexibility to choose their healthcare providers from a list of Medicaid-participating providers within their state.

Eligibility for Straight Medicaid is determined by the state based on the income level (which must be below a certain threshold), age, disability status, family size, and other factors. Each state establishes and administers its own Medicaid plans, so eligibility criteria may vary from state to state.

Understanding Managed Medicaid

Managed Medicaid, according to, is a healthcare delivery system under which states contract with private health insurance companies, referred to as Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) to provide comprehensive health care services to their Medicaid beneficiaries. Managed Medicaid works by the state assigning Medicaid beneficiaries to a specific MCO which they can choose from a list provided by the state. These MCOs receive a fixed monthly fee from the state per enrollee (known as capitation), regardless of how much healthcare service each member uses. The MCOs are then responsible for providing a comprehensive set of health care benefits to the enrolled Medicaid recipients. The intention is to control Medicaid spending while also improving the quality of care and health outcomes for recipients.

Eligibility for Managed Medicaid is the same as for standard Medicaid, as it is determined by individual state laws. Typically, individuals and families with low income, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and some low-income adults are eligible. It is important to check the specific criteria for your state since eligibility rules can vary.

Popular managed Medicaid plans:

CompanyStateAverage Premium (People with Incomes Below Federal Poverty Level)
Kaiser PermanenteCalifornia, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington$0 per month
UnitedHealthcareMany statesVaries by state
AmeriHealth CaritasSeveral states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and TexasVaries by state
Tufts Health PlanMassachusetts$20 per month
CenteneMany statesVaries by state

Member Reported Problems with Managed Medicaid

Managed Medicaid, while offering an affordable healthcare solution to low-income individuals and families, does have its share of challenges. Here are some of them:

  • Limited Provider Choice: Typically, Managed Medicaid plans have a restricted network of healthcare providers. As a consequence, individuals might find it challenging to consult their preferred healthcare professionals (source: Health Affairs).
  • Prior Authorization Requirements & Denied Care: Managed Medicaid plans might deny or delay care due to various reasons, such as not fulfilling prior authorization requirements or services deemed medically unnecessary. This can pose serious problems for individuals with chronic health conditions or those requiring urgent c
  • Medicaid Lock-In: Once individuals enroll in a Managed Medicaid plan, they might not have the flexibility to switch to another plan unless a qualifying event occurs.
  • Costs: Managed Medicaid plans might be more costly than traditional Medicaid, particularly for individuals with higher income (Source:
  • Customer Service Issues: Criticisms have been leveled at Managed Medicaid plans for their poor customer service, making it problematic for individuals to seek help with issues like denied or delayed care.
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Can you switch between Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid?

Yes, switching between Straight Medicaid and Managed Medicaid is possible, but it depends on the specific state's rules and the time of year. Some states have open enrollment periods when beneficiaries can switch plans. In other cases, a special circumstance like moving or having a baby may make it possible to switch outside of the open enrollment period (source:

Can you have both Straight Medicaid and private health insurance?

Yes, individuals can have both Straight Medicaid and private health insurance. In this case, Medicaid often serves as a secondary insurance to help cover costs not fully covered by the private insurance.

Can you have both Managed Medicaid and private health insurance?

Yes, similar to Straight Medicaid, you can also have both Managed Medicaid and private health insurance. Medicaid would again typically serve as secondary insurance.

What are the income limits for Straight and Managed Medicaid?

The income limits for both Straight and Managed Medicaid are determined by state law and are based on a percentage of the federal poverty level. These can range from 138% of the federal poverty level for most adults in states that have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, to much lower levels in states that have not expanded Medicaid. It is best to check the specific limits for your state (source:

How to apply for Straight or Managed Medicaid?

Applications for both Straight and Managed Medicaid can typically be submitted online through your state’s Medicaid website, by mail

Khang T. Vuong, MHA

Khang T. Vuong received his Master of Healthcare Administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. He was named Forbes Healthcare 2021 30 under 30. Vuong spoke at Stanford Medicine X, HIMSS conference, and served as a Fellow at the Bon Secours Health System.