On My Mind: Dental Insurance is an Outrageous Joke

Last week, I had a dental emergency. I cracked a tooth and immediately went into panic mode. It was an accident. These things happen. As a general rule, I have a pretty healthy set of teeth. I brush twice a day. I floss. I go see my friendly neighborhood dentist every six months. I even started using mouth wash regularly. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to my teeth, so needless to say I was concerned.

Unfortunately, my dentist was out of town on vacation, so I went to someone recommended by a friend. I’m not the wait and see what happens type. He took one look at my mouth and told me I would need a crown since the tooth broke to the gum line. That part didn’t scare me. What did scare me was the $685 price tag. This was after my so-called dental insurance. The total price was about $1300. My insurance covered about half.

I make a decent wage, but I also pay rent in Boston and have a sizable student loan debt that keeps me mired from month to month. Dropping nearly $700 on one tooth was no easy decision. And I will openly admit that it caused me to panic and weep in the dentist chair.

But that was the point. What choice did I really have? Leave the tooth and odds are it would get infected and matters would only get worse. Get the tooth extracted and that messes up the alignment of your teeth. There was no choice. Take the hit and get your damned tooth fixed. End of story.

But I don’t like that I didn’t have a single affordable option. I pay a lot of medical bills and yet my worst one (with insurance) wasn’t more than $300. That was about how much I was expecting to pay. This? This was much worse. And this is considering the fact that I have a tiny bit of wiggle room. What with a meager savings and my dad’s kind support, it’s an unfortunate loss but I’m still going to be buying groceries. I’ll just need to tighten my belt for a few months. But what about for the people where this kind of money is life ruining?

In a Huffington Post article by Wendell Potter he quotes CDHP executive director Patrice Pascual as saying, “Affordability is not just an issue for lower-income Americans. Our survey showed that a significant share of middle-income people had also put off a dental visit because of the out-of-pocket costs they expected to pay.” This means that many Americans are putting their health at risk because of the high cost of dental services. (Do read Potter’s whole series. It’s fascinating.)

The worst part is the lack of transparency. No one really knows how much any dental work is going to cost. I know I’m covered for a few fillings a year. But if I get into any real trouble, even with insurance, the odds are I will be screwed financially. How is it even a little bit ethical to force someone to choose between being financially secure and their health? The office I went to was kind enough to only force me to pay half upfront, but I would have had an easier time with some kind of payment plan. But that wasn’t even an option. I don’t understand how this system has functioned this way for so long and can continue to function. I get that these are intricate procedures utilizing expensive equipment and I have no true issue with paying or having it done. It’s the lack of options for those who might have financial difficulty that absolutely astounds me.

Health insurance has gotten more affordable with time, but dental insurance is another story. A Salon article by Terrance Heath, he states, “According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the cost of dental care has risen faster than the cost of medical care overall. Between 2008 and 2012, only hospital and adult day care costs rose faster, but annual spending caps on dental coverage remain stuck at their original Watergate-era levels, between  $1,000 and $2,000.” That means dental insurance coverage has not improved in about 40 years. This flabbergasts me.

The care I received was good, but I’ve spent this entire week in pain and anxiety, hoping something else doesn’t go wrong with this tooth for fear of having to lay out more cash that I really can’t afford. The only good thing I can see from this experience is that it has inspired me to be even more serious than I already was about preventive care. Floss people. And brush twice a day. Or else you may literally be paying for it.

Until next time!

NOTE: Please make no mistake, I am no expert on dental insurance. I am simply making a case based on my own experience. I do not pretend to be an expert in this field and welcome any further information or commentary. I would like to have a friendly and respectful discussion on this topic.

Also, I would like to point everyone to this comical video of April and Andy on Parks & Rec running away from a $500 dental bill.


2 thoughts on “On My Mind: Dental Insurance is an Outrageous Joke

  1. FYI it greatly depends on the dentist you visit and whether or not they take dental insurance. From your post it sounds to me like this dentist would accept insurance up to a certain cost and then require you to cover the rest. If you can’t afford this particular dentist then you can look for a more affordable one that will take your insurance and cover the whole procedure. There are plenty of affordable dentistry options in the area including clinics at Tufts and BU. Dental insurance isn’t regulated like health insurance right now but when a dentist agrees to accept dental insurance the insurance company decides to cut their rate in half. That means this dentist can no longer run their own practice and actually provide high quality dentistry to each patient if they’re trying to get through case after case to cover the expenses of their practice. For people who can’t afford to go to a private practice there are plenty of other chain dentistry locations opening up that cater to lower-income people. There’s so much information that you’re lacking. Reading two articles on dental insurance doesn’t make you an expert. Please try actually talking to a dentist.

    1. Thanks for your comment. What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t aware that I needed to or should go somewhere else. Additionally, I don’t think affordable dental care is as prevalent as you claim. If so, I would love to see the statistics. Can you point me to a paper or study indicating this? In this instance, I couldn’t go to my usual doctor in this emergency situation. I was panicked and worried for my tooth. It’s difficult to find any doctor you are comfortable with, whether medical or a dentist, especially in an emergency situation, so I went with who my trusted friend recommended. All I wanted was some more information and options (or even a payment plan). I know with the insurance I have, they only cover 50% of any procedure, which isn’t great considering how much each procedure costs. The heart of the matter I am trying to get to is that there appears to be a serious problem in this area. In my mind, insurance implies that you will be covered for procedures, that it will not be a devastating cost. Also, please do not misunderstand. I do not claim at all to be an expert. I am basing this on my own experience and the dozen or so articles I have read through online. I am not at all an expert nor do I pretend to be.

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