A Benefit to Smile About

Instead of a costly dental insurance plan, a dental discount card can be an affordable way to build up employee benefit offerings

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If you’ve been grinding your teeth in frustration trying to come up with a plan to take the bite out of dental costs for yourself, your family or your employees, a card may be the solution.

No, not a “my sympathies on your painfully expensive root canal” card. Not even Hallmark has come up with that one yet. We’re talking about the wallet-sized card you get when you sign on to a dental discount plan that can save you 10 to 60 percent on the going rate of dental services.

Not insurance

A dental discount card is a thoughtful benefit for your employees. It can make them feel valued, and it can pay off in the long run if it encourages people to get regular dental care instead of avoiding it because of the cost.

Ignoring oral health can cause bigger health problems down the road, so an hour away for a cleaning today beats days of work missed later for a serious illness. Plus, like any other benefit, the cost is probably tax deductible.

As insurance costs increase, more companies are cutting back on benefits or eliminating them. And of course, self-employed people must provide their own coverage. A discount card is a way to save on out-of-pocket costs, or for a small company that can’t afford health insurance to help employees with health care.

To be clear, a discount plan is not insurance. It’s more like a warehouse club membership. You pay Sam’s Club or Costco an annual membership fee, and in return you save money there on food and supplies. Dental discount plans work the same way. In both cases, the goal is to save more than you spend for the benefit.

The annual membership fee for a dental discount plan is usually $50 to $150 a year for singles and $100 to $200 for families. Discounts on services can range from 10 to 60 percent. Often, the plans provide discounts on services not typically covered by insurance, such as cosmetic procedures.

There is usually no waiting period, and no denying anyone for a pre-existing condition, so if you need thousands of dollars in dental work soon, you can sign up and save hundreds immediately. There are also no deductibles to meet and no cap on how much you use the plan.

Check it out

An easy way to shop for a dental discount plan is to go online to comparison sites like www.dentalinsurance.com and www.dentalplans.com. Don’t sign on to a plan until you know there are dentists in your area who participate. Some regions have scores of dentists who take part in discount programs, but in other areas, there are few or none.

The comparison sites allow you to see more than one plan at a time and search for providers by typing in your ZIP code. You can find dentists who accept the plans and see their discounted rates for services like exams, cleanings, X-rays, fillings, crowns, root canals and dentures.

You may have to switch providers to take advantage of a discount plan. Consult with employees and see how willing they are to switch before buying cards for them. It would be a waste to spend $100 on a card that goes unused.

There have been cases of fraudulent companies selling discount cards. To know you’re dealing with a legitimate business, look for a 30-day money-back guarantee. Also, call some of the providers to make sure they still participate, are taking new patients, and how much of a discount they give on specific services.

Be aware that orthodontia, cosmetic procedures, oral surgery and some other procedures may require a specialist outside the general dentistry field. A card may not get you a discount with these providers. If you foresee braces or whitening in the future, you may have to shop around more for plans and providers.

Also, before you sign on the dotted line, check with your state insurance commissioner to make sure the company is registered in your state. You can find your state department of insurance on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website at www.naic.org.

Why would they do that?

You may wonder why a reputable dentist would participate in a discount program. If a filling is typically $173, but discount plan members pay $112, that’s $61 less in the dentist’s pocket, right?

Dentists take part because discount programs bring in customers they might not otherwise see. It’s a form of advertising, like a coupon. It helps them grow their practice.

It also helps the dental clinic with cash flow. To get the discounted price, patients must pay at the time of service. It’s less hassle than sending in a claim to an insurance company, or sending a bill to the patient, and waiting for payment.

In a perfect world, of course, dentists and every other business would always be busy with customers paying full freight. And we’d all have luxury health and dental insurance plans that would cover every office visit and procedure 100 percent. But in today’s economy, where costs are high and the future is uncertain, accepting or using a discount card may be a valuable compromise.


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