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OBJECTIVE: To compare treatment patterns and the ten-year survival of prostate cancer patients in two large, nonprofit, group/staff HMOs to those of patients receiving care in the fee-for-service health setting. DATA SOURCES/STUDY DESIGN: A cohort of men age 65 and over diagnosed with prostate cancer between 1985 and the end of 1992 and followed through 1994. Subjects (n = 21,741) were ascertained by two population-based tumor registries covering the greater San Francisco-Oakland and Seattle-Puget Sound areas. Linkage of registry data with Medicare claims data and with HMO inpatient utilization data allowed the determination of health plan enrollment and the measurement of comorbid conditions. Multivariate regression models were used to examine HMO versus FFS treatment and survival differences adjusting for sociodemographic and clinical characteristics. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Among cases with non-metastatic prostate cancer, HMO patients were more likely than FFS patients to receive aggressive therapy (either prostatectomy or radiation) in San Francisco-Oakland (odds ratio [OR] = 1.69, 95% CI = 1.46-1.96) but not in Seattle (OR = 1.15, 0.93-1.43). Among men receiving aggressive therapy, HMO cases were three to five times more likely to receive radiation therapy than prostatectomy. Overall mortality was equivalent over ten years (HMO versus FFS mortality risk ratio [RR] = 1.01, 0.94-1.08), but prostate cancer mortality was higher for HMO cases than for FFS cases (RR = 1.25, 1.13-1.39). CONCLUSION: Despite marked treatment differences for clinically localized prostate cancer, overall ten-year survival for patients enrolled in two nonprofit group/staff HMOs was equivalent to survival among patients receiving care in the FFS setting, even after adjustment for sociodemographic and clinical characteristics. Similar overall but better prostate cancer-specific survival among FFS patients is most plausibly explained by differences between the HMO and FFS patients in both tumor characteristics and unmeasured patient selection factors.