Dentists. Just the word may make you shake in your boots. According to one study, dental phobia is the most prevalent phobia, with 3.7% of all adults suffering from it. That’s more than spider phobia (2.7%) and height phobia (3.1%). Here’s something that freelancers shouldn’t fear: finding a way to afford the crucial dental care they need.
What, exactly, does dental insurance do?
Dental insurance is health insurance for your teeth – it will help you pay for regular cleanings and checkups as well as procedures like cavity fillings and root canals.
I have health insurance. Do I need dental insurance, too?
Probably – most health insurance plans do not include dental coverage for adults. However, health insurance plans do usually provide dental coverage for dependents under the age of 18 (also known as children). That doesn’t really help you, personally, but if you have kids and you have health insurance, their teeth will be fine.
Okay, well, do I really need dental insurance?
We’d suggest some form of dental coverage – more on your options in a minute – because going to the dentist is expensive. Over the past decade, one in four Americans didn’t go to the dentist for a necessary treatment because they couldn’t afford it.
Despite dental care only accounting for a small percentage of America’s overall spending on medical care, Americans have to pay more out-of-pocket for dental procedures. June Thomas over at Slate wrote a great article about the cost of dentistry all the way back in 2009 – and unfortunately, not much has changed since then.
And generally, it’s a bad idea to put off dental care. Unlike other parts of your body, teeth can’t really heal. They’re either healthy or decaying, and there’s not much of a middle ground. Regular checkups and cleanings are important for catching things like cavities early, before it becomes something more serious (and more expensive).
What's the difference between dental insurance and dental discount plans?
Glad you asked! They both try to accomplish the same goal: make dental procedures cheaper. They just go about it in different ways.
Dental insurance is insurance. It works much the same way that health insurance does – you pay a monthly premium to keep the policy, and when you go in for a procedure, you pay some portion of the price. This all depends on your policy’s deductible, co-pay, and co-insurance. On top of that, your policy might have a maximum annual benefit, meaning there’s only so much your insurance company will pay in a year.
With dental discount plans, there are a lot less variables. You pay an annual fee and they provide you with discounts on covered procedures. There’s usually no limit on how often you can use your discount plan.
One big benefit of dental insurance? It usually covers the entire cost of up your regular bi-annual checkups and cleanings.
So which one is better? Dental insurance or dental discount plan?
That depends. How much shopping around are you prepared to do?
Here’s the real problem with comparing dental insurance and dental discount plans: the details can be complex, and that makes comparing plans difficult. You have to go into the weeds and actually read the policies and plans to see what they cover and how much it will cost you.
For most consumers, this isn’t necessary. If your teeth are pretty healthy and you just want to cover the bi-annual cleanings, the occasional x-ray, and maybe a cavity filling, an insurance plan will probably provide the best value.
You can jump on your state health insurance marketplace to find a plan there. Unlike health insurance, you can buy dental insurance from the marketplace year-round. If your state is anything like New York, however, pickings might be slim. A quick Google search for "dental insurance your state" should come up with some private plans.
If you already have a dental issue that suggests you might face some heavy dental work in your future – maybe a root canal or a crown – a discount plan might provide better value. Why? There’s no limit on how many times you can take advantage of the discount plan, so if you’re due for a ton of procedures, a discount plan will provide more coverage over the course of a year than an insurance plan. Just make sure the dental plan covers the procedure you need. You can't find dental discount plans on your state marketplace, but you can use Dental Plans, a private dental discount plan marketplace, to find the dental discount plan of your dreams.
(Want an example of how complicated comparing your options can be? One detail we found while researching this article is that some dental insurance plans restrict the kinds of materials that can be used – restrictions that don’t usually exist in dental discount plans. While most people don’t obsess over the materials that go into their dental procedures, these restrictions can throw a wrench in your palate if your dentist suggests a material that isn’t covered.)
We wrote a huge article where we really dug into the details of how insurance policies and discount plans work. If you want to read more about the dental insurance / discount plan shopping comparison experience, we suggest you check it out. For a taster, here’s a chart comparing the total cost of three different dental care scenarios:
When I go to the dentist, they have a lot of brochures for something called CareCredit. Is that better than insurance or a discount plan?
CareCredit advertises itself as a "financing plan" for healthcare and medical expenses, but it might help to think of it as a credit card that you can only use to pay for dental procedures. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – they have several options that help people pay off their balance without incurring any interest charges – but it does come with the same risks as a regular credit card. For example, if you don’t pay off the balance within your repayment period, you’re stuck paying interest on the entire purchase, not just the balance left over.
We suggest that you look into dental insurance and dental discount plans before deciding on applying for CareCredit. CareCredit can also be used in conjunction with an insurance or discount plan to help you pay for the part not covered by your plan.
Is dental insurance going to be super expensive because I’m buying it for myself (a.k.a. not a group employer plan)?
It probably won’t be super expensive – the cheapest insurance plan on the New York market place as of publication is $11 per month, and all options were under $30. In other words, you’ll probably pay less for dental insurance than you would on your internet bill.
We’ve also found that you can find some discount plans for even cheaper prices than that, depending on where you’re shopping. (Again, check out the dental discount plan marketplace Dental Plans for some affordable options.) Either way, you’ll probably be able to find a plan that adequately covers you without breaking the bank.
Wait, I haven’t left my full-time job yet and I already have dental insurance through them! Can I keep it?
Perhaps! There’s a crazy little program called COBRA – the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act – that will let you and your family keep your health insurance, including any group dental benefits provided by your employer, for a limited period of time (usually 18 or 36 months).
There’s a good chance you qualify. If your company has twenty or more employees, COBRA lets you keep benefits if you are voluntarily or involuntarily leaving your job, or if you’re transitioning between jobs, and if other life events cause an interruption of benefits.
If you want to keep your current dental plan through COBRA, you should contact your HR representative or your dental insurance company directly.
When you continue your coverage under COBRA, the plans can seem really expensive. Why? Mostly because your employer has stopped footing their portion of the bill. Most employers pay between 50 and 80% of their employees’ monthly premiums, which can hide a huge portion of the total cost of your current insurance policy.
We suggest going onto your state’s health insurance marketplace and doing some shopping. (Since you’re leaving your job, you can search for health insurance, dental insurance, or health/dental combos.) There’s a good chance you may find a more comprehensive plan for the same price or a more affordable plan with just the right amount of coverage for you and your family.
What if I stop paying my premium?
Your coverage will stop.