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Dental Insurance

What I Think
Examples + Analysis
Final Word

We gladly accept and will file your claims for any insurance plan that allows you to choose your dentist. If your plan is an HMO (which are extremely uncommon in dentistry), they require you to visit a contracted clinic, which we are not. If you have any questions or doubts about your insurance, we welcome you to contact us.


The world of dental insurance can be dizzyingly complicated, even to those who deal with the subject daily.  I'm hopeful this page helps answer your questions and dispell myths. You can find definitions of many insurance terms at the bottom of this page.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that "dental insurance" is not really insurance at all. If you think of most insurances (i.e. auto, home, medical, life, disabilty), it is primarily a safety net for financial hardships or catastrophies. Dental is no such thing; rather the opposite. Dental helps with day-to-day, relatively minor, dental expenses, but is never there for major expenses.  This is due to the extrememly modest yearly limits, known as "maximums".


Dental insurance is usually quite limited in benefit, and privately obtained plans are unfortunately the most limited for the following reasons:

The benefits covered by a dental plan have been negotiated between the employer and the insurance company. Unfortunately even if a proceedure is required, if it is not a covered benefit the insurance will not pay.

Insurance companies reserve the right to review all claims and make their own decision on whether to pay. This is a very sticky issue, and the source of much frustration in dentistry. You are always welcome to dispute an insurance company's decision, but a dental office has limited power in such an action.

Don't mistake the need for medical insurance with dental - they are quite different. Believe it or not, some dental plans don't cover "accidents" at all. If your dental insurance does cover accidents, there is a yearly maximum (cap). No matter what dental care you require, your insurance will not pay more than that maximum (typically $1000-2000 per year). If your keeping dental insurance just in case you may need that $1000-2000 some day, you might want to look at your premiums and see if that is financially sound.

Almost no one has 100% coverage for everything, though some people have 100% coverage for certain procedures. If your insurance implies 100% coverage for everything, it is actually 100% of the insurance company's "fee schedule", which usually less than half of the average dental fee.

Your plan is simply a contract of benefits negotiated by your employer and your insurance company for all employees. It is common for dental insurance plans to only cover two hygiene visits per year regardless of what your health requires.

What I think

As with over 90% of all dentists, our office does not participate in HMO's because of the limitations those plans impose. Our office does not believe offices that participate in managed care can provide quality comprehensive care for all patients.  I am not comfortable with a system which provides discounted care in exchange for a larger volume of patients under one insurance, differing additional costs to other patients without that or any insurance.

As a consumer, I advise you not participate in plans that limits your choice of dentist.

What would you think if you were told your salary was being lowered to its 1970 equivalent? I have seen numerous dental insurance plans which have the same yearly maximum as they did in the late 1960's. It's hard to believe, but it's true. Most dental plans offered a $1000 per year maximum in the late 60's.  With inflation, in 2013 it would have been $6700 per year.  In other words, back when cleanings were $5-6, plans were offering $1000 per year benefits, but now that cleanings are twenty times that cost, you still only get $1000.

How to Interpret Insurance Plan Choices

Federal Government Employee Example

In 1999 I was asked by a close friend to help choose between 2 dental insurance plans offered by her employer, the Veterans Administration.  One plan ($120/year) would require her to choose from a small list of contracted dentists (i.e. a DMO/HMO), so that was off the table.  The second plan, through Delta Dental, ($240/year) allowed her to go to any dentist. That was out an unfavorable option, but lets see why:

This second plan paid based on a fee schedule. 2 cleanings, checkup x-rays, and 1 exam, they only paid $94.  In 1999, those yearly preventive procedures cost $215.  My friend would pay $240 in premiums plus the $121 (215 minus 94) the plan didn't cover, totaling $341/year for only $215 in services.  Then if you look at what they paid for fillings and other procedures, the plan made even less sense.  I was pleased to hear that the word around the VA was not to accept either dental plan. She continues to pay out of pocket for dental services, saving money every year.

Private Sector Example

A major pharmaceutical company offers its employees 3 dental plans (table below). None of the 3 plans have a deductible and you may choose any dentist.

  "Preventive" "Standard" "Comprehensive"
Premium/year $111 $240 $350
Preventive coverage 100% 100% 100%
Basic coverage 0 50% 80%
Major coverage 0 50% 50%
Orthodontic coverage 0 50% 50%
Maximum covered yearly 0 $1000 $1500

To choose from these 3 plans I start with the fact that minimum preventive services per year in 1999 cost about $215 and that all 3 plans pay 100% of this.  Thus you certainly save money with the "Preventive" plan ($111/year premium).  

If you pay $129/year more for the "Standard" plan to add the 50% benefit for basic & major, it means to get that $129 you spent back from the insurance company  you need $258 in basic &/or major dental work on the average each year because they only cover 50% of it.  If you rarely need more than cleanings you may want to stick with the "Preventive" plan.  

For my friend, I recommended the "Comprehensive" plan because she has had dental issues throughout her life.  For that additional $239/year premium she only has to pay 20% of fillings out of pocket.   To get that $239 back from the insurance she only needs $299 in basic &/or major.  

The bottom line is that this company has good dental coverage aside from the low maximums. It is clear the true premiums are subsidized by the employer.

The final word 

To stand on my soapbox for a moment, there is no true dental insurance.  "Insurance" replaces what has been lost.  The reality is that an employer has negotiated a contract with a dental insurance company.  The insurance company's responsibility is not to remedy your loss, only provide what is in the contract.   Dental insurance can be a nice benefit as long as you know what you are getting.

For dental insurance to pay its contracted amount towards a procedure, you must meet all the following criteria:
1) The procedure is covered by your dental plan.
2) The insurance company approves the procedure. It's not always enough that the dentist says it is needed.
3) You have not reached your yearly maximum.
On the other hand, even if there is only 1 option to fix a dental problem and that option is not a covered benefit, your insurance pays nothing.

Specific questions regarding your insurance benefits are best and most accurately handled by your employer, insurance company, or your dentist.


"Basic": 1 of the 3 categories that all dental procedures fall under.  "Basic" includes most fillings and typically root canals, oral and periodontal surgery.

Cafeteria Plan:  An employee's benefit plan that allows you to select benefits from a list of nontaxable options.  These options may be vision, medical, and dental.  The dental plan you may select is at the discretion of your employer.

Capitation Plan:  Capitation means "by the head." The contracted dentists must provide all, or most, of the dental services covered under that plan for a payment on a "per-patient" or "per-treatment" basis, regardless of what is performed.  Basically this is a variation of the DMO.

Dental Maintenance Organization (DMO):  Type of managed care plan whereby a listed/participating contracted dentist is paid a fixed monthly fee per patient on that plan. The listed dentist(s) must provide all covered services to patients on that plan for typically no additional fee from the insurance company or patient.  The participating DMO dentist can charge the patient their normal fee if the treatment is not a covered service but the patient has to pay 100% of that fee.

Direct Reimbursement:  A very simple and straight-forward dental insurance coverage concept. The plan is managed by the employer, not an insurance company. You have the freedom to choose any dentist for treatment. The plan reimburses the actual amount spent at the dental office, not based on the treatment. This style of dental insurance meets the fairness criteria recommended by the American Dental Association and myself. The ADA has setup an elaborate web site with more information on direct reimbursement at www.ada.org/dr.

Fee Schedule:  Where an insurance company has a specific fee they will pay for each procedure covered by a dental plan.  These fee should be found in a benefits booklet.  You may usually choose any dentist, but insurance will only reimburse that specific fee set by the insurance company and any difference the patient must cover.  Typically fee schedules are 15-35% of any "usual fee" and it is expected that a substantial portion of all treatment will paid directly by the patient.

Managed Care/Health Maintenance Organization (HMO):  Plans that control costs by restricting what office treatment may be administered, the frequency of treatment, and how much is paid towards the treatment.  A list of dentists contracted with this plan is who you must seek care from.  Premiums to the HMO are usually paid for by an employer at a fixed price per patient. Patients generally do not have any significant "out-of-pocket" expenses. You will not know the amount an HMO dentist is reimbursed by an HMO.  You cannot choose an office such as mine and utilize an HMO plan.  Less than 30% of all dentists in the United States participate in HMO plans.

"Major": 1 of the 3 categories that all dental procedures fall under.  "Major" includes crowns, bridges, dentures, and sometimes oral and periodontal surgery.

Preferred Provider Plan (PPO): Type of managed care plan that contracts with a group of dentists to provide treatment for discounted fees to people enrolled in the plan.  Covered patients usually must select a dentist from the PPO list, and they may or may not be able to switch dentists.  This sometimes is identical to Managed Care.

"Preventive": 1 of the 3 categories that all dental procedures fall under.  "Preventive" includes standard cleanings, x-rays, and exams.

Usual, Customary, Reasonable: Usual Fee is what an office charges for a procedure.  The Customary Fee is the amount the insurance company deems acceptable for a procedure.  My fees are nearly always within the usual and customary fee of insurance companies.




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