Don’t have dental coverage? You’re in good company.
The National Association of Dental Plans reports that in 2012, more than 40 percent of Americans lacked dental coverage. The Affordable Care Act now requires that all individual and small group market plans cover pediatric oral health services but not adult oral health.
Even for those who do have dental coverage, most plans only cover up to $1,000 per year – a maximum that hasn’t increased since the 1970s, according to Matt Messina, a dentist in Cleveland, Ohio. “Even though the cost of care has increased, [the maximum] hasn’t changed,” he says. “In the 1970s, that would generally take care of anything other than a massive injury.” Nowadays, a single crown could easily max out those benefits, potentially requiring you to make up the difference out of pocket.
These seven tips could help you take a bite out of dental costs.
1. Commit to preventive care. If you don’t have dental coverage, paying out of pocket for cleanings could save you money down the line. Barring that, make sure you’re still brushing and flossing carefully. “The absolute cheapest way to make your own dental experience better is to commit to brushing, flossing your teeth and eating a healthy diet,” Messina says. “Those are pennies a day that breed dollars of savings later on. The cheapest cavity is the one you never get.”
[Read: 5 Ways to Cut Medical Costs.]
4. Get a treatment plan in writing. Unlike a restaurant, where you can see the prices listed on a menu, dental care doesn’t have the same level of transparency. Ask for a treatment plan in writing with an itemized list of costs so you know what to expect, and talk through these costs with your dentist or orthodontist to see if there might be less-expensive options. Orthodontists now offer many types of braces with differing costs. Braces hidden behind the teeth are the most expensive option, followed by Invisalign and ceramic braces, Osherow says. “You can save money by going with traditional metal brackets,” he explains. Materials for fillings or crowns may have different associated costs as well.
Finally, here are two strategies that many dentists don’t recommend: dental tourism and Groupon vouchers. Traveling overseas could save you money on pricey procedures like implants, but it carries some additional risks (not to mention the added travel costs). “If you are going abroad for major surgical procedures, what happens if you have a complication while you’re there?” Messina asks. “Or worse, when you get back?” Although many countries do have highly qualified dentists, he also points out that American standards governing dentists don’t extend beyond the U.S. border, so you may not have much recourse in court if things go wrong.
Coupon websites like Groupon have been controversial in medical and dental circles because of ethical concerns around fee-splitting between the company and dentist. Also, if you jump from dentist to dentist based on who’s offering a Groupon to new patients, you won’t get the same continuity and level of care you’d get from a dentist who knows you and your teeth. Plus, there’s the concern that a bargain-basement provider might be cutting corners. “You don’t want to be looking for bargains on parachutes,” Osherow says. “I wouldn’t be looking for one in orthodontics, either.”