Many professionals are provided with dental coverage through an employer, but for everyone else, it may not be worth the price of purchasing a plan outright. Under the Affordable Care Act, dental coverage isn’t guaranteed, and while premiums aren’t outrageously expensive, people with good oral hygiene will likely lose money on the investment. For unexpected and expensive procedures, it would be useful to have some monetary help from an insurer, but there are some reasonable alternatives to traditional dental plans.
About 60% of Americans have dental insurance, and most of them have plans through their employer. The cost of an individual policy averages about $360 a year, according to Bankrate. One problem with buying dental insurance as an individual is that individual plans commonly institute waiting periods for certain types of coverage, sometimes as long as six to 18 months. Employer-sponsored plans aren’t always such a great deal either, since dental plans can have a maximum benefit of little as $1,000 per year, and most only cover half the cost of expensive procedures. Traditionally, plans cover 100% for preventive care, 80% for basic procedures, and 50% for major procedures.
There are alternatives to the usual insurance model for dentistry, including dental savings plans and discount dental plans. If you decide to forego insurance and pay as you go, some money-saving options include dental tourism, charitable clinics, federally-qualified health centers, and dental schools. Of course, the best cost-saving method of all is proper preventive care, like regular brushing and flossing and good nutrition. If your teeth are generally healthy, you might opt for a yearly cleaning to save money. Research indicates that visiting the dentist twice per year has no significant benefit over a single visit annually. You can also ask your dentist for a 10% discount in exchange for paying at the time of the visit.
Some dentists advise patients against insurance plans altogether. In an investigative article from Vox, a dentist named Sheldon Stromberg (the author’s father) suggests that dental coverage is a racket because it doesn’t do what insurance is supposed to do. “Insurance is supposed to be for rare, catastrophic losses that can’t be predicted — like your house burning down, or a heart attack. But dental care isn’t rare, or unexpected, or catastrophic,” he said. “For the most part, it’s relatively small charges, on the order of hundreds of dollars, and you know you’ll need to visit a dentist every year.”
Some plans restrict patients to in-network dentists, and these providers may be more likely to scam you. According to the Vox, dentists in these networks are essentially working for the insurance companies in many cases, giving them a perverse financial incentive to sell you on procedures that aren’t covered by your plan. Most dentists the article’s author spoke to cautioned against going to a new dentist solely because the provider is accepted by your insurance plan, and some warned against dental insurance entirely.
Sheldon Stromberg strongly recommends dental schools as a low-cost alternative. “The work can take a long time, and the hours can be pretty restricted, but they’re inexpensive and the work is generally very good,” he said. Dentistry at a school clinic involves much more oversight than you’ll find at a private practice, so these schools are also a great option if you’re having trouble finding a dentist you trust or if you’re seeking a second opinion. No matter what path you take, keep in mind that insurance companies are looking to maximize profits. That means a lot of patients get the short end of the stick.