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Is Going to the Dentist Too Costly? 6 Ways to Save

Health, Medical Costs
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Going to the dentist can be expensive, and, for many people, downright scary. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans delaying dental care out of fear of the costs, there are some solutions.

Among Americans with dental insurance, 57% have left a dental problem like toothache or bleeding gums untreated, many because of a lack of price transparency. According to the 2013 Dental Care Affordability and Accessibility study that number is understandably higher for the uninsured, with nearly 70% avoiding treatment. Regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve seen the dentist, follow these six tips for a cheaper (and therefore more enjoyable) trip to the teeth doctor.

1. Uncovered? Get insurance.

One way to help protect yourself from high out-of-pocket dental costs is buying dental insurance. Rates vary, but some plans on are available for around $15 to $25 a month for coverage depending on carrier, location and policy options.

Many dental insurance policies operate on a basic 100-80-50 plan, meaning that 100% of preventive and diagnostic costs are covered, approximately 80% of basic procedures including fillings and extractions are covered, and 50% of major services like crowns and dentures are paid. Insurance plans also normally have a coverage cap, which means that you are only covered for a certain maximum dollar amount each year. A cap of $1,500, for instance, means that any charges incurred after the insurance carrier covers $1,500 in dental costs that year would be your responsibility entirely.

For someone without any major problems, a year without dental insurance complete with two exams, X-rays and cleanings would cost around $370, according to American Dental Association figures. Though there’s not a dramatic decrease when compared to annual insurance premiums, insurance breaks up those costs throughout the year and is good to have around if something more serious goes wrong, making it a better option for many people.

2. Consider a discount plan.

Dental discount plans are another popular option. With these plans, you pay an enrollment fee of about $80 to $120 each year to get discounts ranging from 10% to 60% on all of your dental visits and procedures. There are no annual limits, and exclusions vary by plan. Unlike conventional dental insurance, cosmetic procedures like whitening are typically included in discount plans.

3. Schedule regular cleanings and exams.

The latest research shows annual cleanings for the average dental patient may be just as effective as the twice yearly cleanings that have been recommended for decades. Several studies have indicated that visiting the dentist twice a year has no notable benefits when compared with a single visit annually. But this single visit is important, as it helps to identify problems before they get serious and expensive. High-risk patients, like those with periodontal disease, may need more frequent visits.

4. Ask for a cash discount and negotiate.

For many dentists, accepting cash payments directly from patients is preferable to filing insurance claims. Some are willing to discount services for cash customers. Many automatically discount cash visits by around 5%, but depending on the clinic, you could get them down further.

Dr. Lawrence Wallace of Larell Surgical Consultants suggests asking the dentist to give you the same rates they give insurance companies, which typically negotiate a 10%-15% discount on the dentist’s charges. Above all, recognize that you are the customer and they ultimately want your business.

5. Use an HSA to pay with pre-tax dollars.

Health savings accounts allow consumers to set aside money into an untaxable account specifically for medical and dental costs. HSA accounts are used in conjunction with high-deductible health plans, with the HSA funds going towards copayments, uncovered procedures and other out-of-pocket costs. Making an HSA work for you means estimating how much money you’ll spend on dental costs and putting that amount away into your HSA. This can take some work. HSAs have been commended for teaching financial vigilance by encouraging thriftier medical spending, so using an HSA may decrease your overall health costs by teaching you to be a savvier health consumer.

6. Consider a dental school for treatment.

Dental students need practice and those nearing their graduation date perform cleanings and other procedures for the public under the supervision of instructors. The American Dental Association offers a listing of all accredited dental schools across the country, many of which offer dental services at steeply discounted rates.

As with all major purchases and health care expenses, doing your research can often save you the most money. Compare local clinics, not only based on how much they charge but what insurance and discount plans they honor. Finally, don’t avoid the dentist because you fear the costs; waiting on dental problems will only make them worse and ultimately more expensive.

Dentist with patient image via Shutterstock.