Dental benefits are part of most employers benefit packages especially among larger employers. MetLife’s Employee Benefits Trend Study for 2002 found that 77 percent of surveyed employers offered to dental coverage to their employees while the National Association of Dental Plans calculates that 65% of the U.S. population has some form of dental coverage.
Clearly, dental benefits are important to Americans. Research conducted by Taylor-Nelson-Sofres Intersearch in 2006 underscored the importance that employees place on dental benefits as it did a survey that found that 78% of employees believe dental benefits to be “very important” or “somewhat important” when considering taking a new job.
Dental Supply vs. Dental Demand
Across all generations, there is greater demand for preventive and cosmetic services as new technologies and techniques (bonding has largely replaced metal fillings, for instance) and Americans have become more educated about their teeth. The definition of oral health has evolved from simply feeling good to also looking good (evidenced by the rise in the amount of cosmetic services such as teeth whitening. Early detection and treatment of oral health problems when intervention is minimized) are vital to improving and sustaining overall oral health, thus keeping direct dental care costs down in the long-term.
More Patients Chasing Fewer Dentists
At the same time that demand is expanding, supply is shrinking. The American Dental Association points out the number of dental school graduates has been declining since 1985 and projects that by 2020 the number of dentists per 100,000 people will have dropped 7 percent to fewer than 51 compared with the current 54.4. Additionally, “available chair hours” are decreasing because the average practitioner is over 50, and dentists tend to work shorter hours as they get older. This supply and demand equation favors the dentist and is requiring dental benefits carriers and administrators to be innovative in attracting and retaining practitioners in their networks.
Therefore, it’s important for employers to understand how the dental network builds and maintains its relationships with network providers as the number of providers in a given dental plan is only one of several questions employers need to ask before they purchase dental coverage. At the minimum, these questions should include;
- Is the number of dental providers in the local area growing?
- Are there future strategy for increasing the number of dental providers?
- What is the dental plan’s retention rate for its dental providers?
The last point is an important indicator of network stability and the increased likelihood that an employee’s favorite dentist will choose to remain in the plan.
Managing Dental Expenditures
The ultimate goal for the employer for any dental plan is for it to adequately cover services that help reduce the incidence of dental disease and promote better oral health because the author used technique of shifting costs to employees could well backfire. Employers that understand the cost drivers in dental care are better able to offer their employees appropriately designed plans that support cost effective care. Equally important to cost effectiveness, however, is equipping employees to take responsibility for maintaining their oral health and become astute consumers of professional care when it is needed.
Affordable Non-Insurance Option
Starting in the late 90s, both large and small employers have a dental benefits option that’s usually more affordable than traditional indemnity-based dental insurance plans. Known as “discount dental plans”, this type of coverage provides deep discounts (usually 30% to 35%) on virtually all dental procedures, even those that are rarely -if ever- covered by insurance such as cosmetic related work. Discount plans have many advantages over traditional insurance to employers including no annual maximums, deductibles, waiting periods or pre-existing condition exclusions for employees. Perhaps best of all, these discount-plans can be purchased for all employees with a payroll deduction option, so it can be offered as either a part of the total benefits package or on a voluntary, opt in basis. There are no minimum participation requirements and the list of local dental providers are usually comparable to those of most dental insurance plans.