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

Photo (cc) by GollyGforce - Living My Worst Nightmare

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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