Is Dental Insurance Worth It? 5 Ways to Save on Care

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Illness isn’t something anyone has much control over, whether it’s a cold or cancer. That’s why we have medical insurance – to handle the big bills that come with unexpected poor health.

But what about dental coverage? Two common oral problems are tooth decay and gum disease, both largely preventable with good oral hygiene. Dental policies are designed to supplement good self-care, not make up for it. Most have a low cap on benefits and pay for semiannual cleanings, but only partially cover restorative work like fillings and won’t touch cosmetic procedures at all.

For people with bigger issues (and no dental benefits through work), insurance may not be worth the cost because of the benefits cap and other reasons. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson talks more about how dental insurance works and what it covers. Check it out, and then read on for a breakdown of common policies and some alternatives.

As you just heard, dental insurance isn’t even dentist-recommended – at least not by the dentist Stacy interviewed. Off-camera, he explained that the reason he dislikes insurance is that the maximum benefit of most policies has changed little over the years, even as the cost has increased. Result? You’re paying too much and getting too little. Here’s how a typical policy breaks down, according to About.com:

  • Maximum annual benefit: $1,000-1,350
  • Diagnostic/preventative care: 100 percent
  • Maintenance and cleanings: 80 percent
  • Basic restorative care, like fillings: 50 percent
  • Oral surgery, like tooth-pulling and root canals: 50 percent
  • Cosmetic care, like whitening, veneers, implants: 0 percent

A policy like this might cost $50 or less a month, and may require a wait of three months to a year before coverage kicks in for certain procedures. Dental care is obviously something that shouldn’t be put off, so you will probably be paying for it well before care is needed – or putting it off and creating more expenses in the long run. Compare dental coverage and rates yourself at sites like eHealthInsurance. But the bottom line is that if a policy costs $50 a month, you’re paying $600 every year for a policy that tops out at little more than twice that. If health and car insurance came with terms like that, we’d all be in trouble.

Looking for other ways to lower the cost of care? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Don’t skip school. Prices at dental colleges may cost half as much as the typical dentist, and every procedure is overseen by qualified and very experienced faculty. While this means you can trust the results, the visit will probably take longer than if a pro does the job. Look up dental schools near you at the American Dental Association.
  2. Get care abroad. In some cases, traveling out of the country for care may be cheaper than getting the job done here. The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions Research Group notes medical tourism is on the rise, with about 7.5 million Americans expected to seek foreign care this year. And you may not have to go as far as you think: Denticenter in Mexico, for example, claims “97 percent of [our] patients come from the U.S. – for 1/3 of the cost!” That high percentage stems from the fact that their offices are right across the border from cities in Texas, California, and Arizona.
  3. Discount plans. Different than traditional insurance, discounts plans are basically agreements between the provider and specific dental offices (although some dental insurance plans also come with discounts.) You pay an annual membership fee ranging from $80-$150 for a discount of 30-50 percent on specific procedures (including some insurance wouldn’t cover) at your dentist. This is cheaper than insurance, but you need to make sure your dentist accepts the specific plan for the work you need. Compare plans at sites like DentalPlans.com.
  4. Negotiate. Few people consider asking a dentist for a lower price, but there’s no reason not to. Dentists negotiate with insurance companies, so they may work with you. Read our story Confessions of a Serial Haggler, where Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson discusses negotiating strategies that have worked for him just about everywhere.
  5. Look for special programs. Various organizations try hard to make care more affordable and widespread, especially for children. We recently wrote a story called 5 Tips to Save on Braces that discussed programs like Smiles Change Lives, which match up low-income families with charitable orthodontists. Do some research and ask your dentist if there are similar programs in your area.

While there are options out there, nothing keeps the cost of dental care down like toothpaste, floss, and mouthwash. Brush up on your technique with dental care advice from the Mayo Clinic.

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  • Anonymous

    Before I retired I went to see my dentist and we discussed the insurance issue.  After we runned the numbers togethher we concluded that I would save several hundred dollars a year if I paid cash insted of getting insurance.  If a big dental job came up in the future he would allowed me to pay it in instalments.  Even in big jobs I would still save in the long run because after paying the insurance, the deductable and the insurance cap plus what is not cover chances are I would not save much of anything by buying the insurance.

    • Anonymous

      I agree, I did the math on my employers dental insurance, it wasn’t worth it.  When I needed major dental work, I used my flexible spending instead.  In the fall I figured out how much I needed during open season.  The following year, I had the procedure done.  I didn’t have enough saved to pay for it in cash, so I put it on the credit card at the beginning of the billing cycle.  That gave me 30 days to submit the paid bill to flex spending  and received the money in time to not pay interest on the credit card.  You get a little perk as flex money is not taxed.

  • gaa90501

    I see that  you failed to talk about HMO dental insurance plans.  These types of plans are much less  ranging from $10 – $25 a month for a single member.  HMO dental insurance plans normally do not have max annul dollar limitations or waiting periods for dental services and unlike a dental discount plan HMO dental insurance plans are file with the state DOI.

    Also dental schools are not always all that low in cost.  Many times if you shop out dental offices you can find dentist  that are at the same cost if not even less then what some schools are charging. I was shopping out dental implants for a friend and the schools where not the lowest in cost

    I agree that when it comes to cosmetic dental care dental insurance fails, but HMO dental insurance will cover for crowns, bridges, partials, root canals and extractions. As well as provide overall basic dental care.  Dental HMO plans schedules out the dental services showing cost for each covered service.  I have a HMO dental plan and have saved thousands of dollars in my dental care over the years I have had my plan.  I will keep paying the $15.50 a month.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Todd-Whitehill/100000133912388 Todd Whitehill

    Having coverage is huge factor in determining use. Those who have dental insurance are two times more likely to visit their dentist then those without. Regular visits for preventive care keep major procedures and therefore costs down.

    The plan design described above is very out dated. The average calendar year max in Californai is $1500 dollars and there are several companies that offer maximums up to $2500 and there is even one (Ameritas Dental) that is offering plans with a $5000 calendar year max.

    If your employer pays for a portion of the coverage dental insurance is a no brainer to purchase. If your employer pays nothing then the individual considering the coverage would need to do the math, and FSA’s can also help. If one regularly floss’s and brush’s there teeth then major cost need not be a concern but as I mentioned initially having coverage is a huge predictor in use ie visiting the dentist.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QREUYV5WAP4KDTQDKGWGJAKRZE sam1

    Can you tell me the name of the plan you have? it seems to work well for you.Thanks.