4 Ways to Get Free or Low-Cost Dental Care

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Keeping your teeth and gums healthy can be expensive. A twice-annual cleaning and exam is an ounce of prevention that will help save you from far more costly work. But even a cleaning can run up a bill of several hundred dollars.

So, the question is, how to stay on top of it without breaking the bank? Here are four ways to save on dental care:

1. Look for special deals

Dentists often advertise some super deals through social buying sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial, local “shopper” newspapers, and even the ubiquitous blue envelope from Valpak. Let me bear witness to deals that do exist: While living in Seattle, I redeemed a Valpak coupon that helped me pay just $29 for cleaning, X-rays and a free teeth-whitening kit custom-made for me in the office.

Read such deals carefully, though, and take note of expiration dates. If a voucher expires, you can still redeem it for the amount paid, but you won’t get the same price on the deal. Suppose you spent $29 on a Groupon deal for cleaning and X-rays but forgot to book the appointment in time. You can still apply the $29 toward those services, but it’ll cost a lot more than $29.

Remember, too, that deep discounts — whether through social buying networks or a coupon in a local paper — are generally for new customers. You won’t get nearly as good a price on future visits.

Also keep in mind that the office on the coupon might not be the most cost-effective place in town for later work. If the exam turns up a problem, write down the specific treatment recommended and the total cost, then say you’ll get back to them regarding future appointments.

Next, ask friends and co-workers which dentists they use and call to compare fees for the same service.

2. Beware costly extra procedures

Teeth whitening is just one of the unnecessary treatments offered at many offices. On average, in-office whitening will cost, about $650, according to the Consumer Guide to Dentistry. If you’re concerned about stains on your teeth, purchase whitening strips or bleaching kits over-the-counter for a fraction of the cost.

Among the procedures that could be unnecessary are teeth whitening, amalgam filling replacement, X-rays, precautionary removal of wisdom teeth and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder surgery.

3. Consider a second opinion

Suppose the dentist says you need deep treatment for serious gum disease plus a crown to fix serious upper-molar decay. You’ll probably reject the idea, wondering just how your teeth could have gotten that bad even though it’s been just a year since your last checkup.

It could be you’re rationalizing. But it could also be that you need a second opinion.

My daughter got that “Serious gum disease! Ghastly cavity!” diagnosis once. The second dentist she visited said, “Nope, you just need a good cleaning and to learn to stay on top of the flossing.” Not a word about gum scaling or even a decayed tooth.

Although most dentists aren’t out to rob you, consider a second opinion if things just don’t feel right. Doing so saved my daughter $1,000 out-of-pocket and a whole lot of unnecessary work.

4. Seek out free or low-cost options

Don’t have dental insurance? Look for discount dental plans such as New Dental Choice and DentalPlans.com. An annual membership fee qualifies you for discounts of up to 60 percent from a group of dentists who have agreed to lower rates.

A few more possibilities:

  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): Designed for families who don’t qualify for Medicaid assistance but can’t afford private insurance, CHIP dental coverage is good for children up to age 19. Coverage varies from state to state. To find out more, visit the CHIP website.
  • Clinical trials: According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, you may qualify for studies that include your specific dental situation. This means free or low-cost care. To learn more, visit the NIDCR website and click on “Clinical Trials.”
  • Dental schools: The American Dental Association has a list of such schools; maybe you’re lucky enough to live near one. Don’t worry, dental students’ work is supervised.
  • Dental hygiene schools: You may be able to get low-cost cleanings at some dental hygiene schools. Check the American Dental Hygienists’ Association website to find the nearest school.
  • Federally funded health centers: These operate on a sliding-scale basis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website has a health care finder tool.
  • Medicaid: Another state-run program that may cover dental benefits for low-income residents. Visit the website to learn about benefits in your state.

What is your experience dealing with dentists and dental bills? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

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