“But I thought my cleanings were covered at 100%!”

That¹s what patients call to tell us when they get a bill for the balance on their periodic examination and cleaning appointments. Some are quite mad, and accuse us of ripping them off. They remind us that the insurance card in their hands plainly states “100% coverage for preventive treatment.”

What is going on? To understand, one has to grasp how the shell game of dental “insurance” has evolved over the years.

In the first generation of dental benefit plans, reimbursements were based on something called “UCR” fees. UCR stands for usual, customary, and reasonable. Fees were based on a percentile of real fee surveys within zip codes. They had a real resemblance to fees charged by dentists in the community. Sure, some insurance companies gamed the system by not updating their UCR fees with any regularity. But by and large, when insurers promised patients “100 coverage for preventive treatment,” the claim was generally correct.

In the second generation of dental benefit plans, called PPOs, fees were still based on some sort of UCR ideal. These plans were concocted to save employers money. They promised to deliver patients to dentists who participated (by signing slanted contracts) with plenty of patients, provided the dentists billed 20 to 30% less for procedures. Often this was the dentists¹ whole profit margin, so most resorted to procedure upcoding and other antics to make up the difference. The dental insurance companies really did not care. The important point of these plans was that they penalized patients for choosing their own dentists. A cleaning covered at 100% at a “participating” dentist would be covered at only 70-80% by a freedom-of-choice dentist.

In the latest generation of dental benefit plans, employers have flexed their muscle with dental insurers. Many now only pay companies a per-claim fee for administration, typically $5 or less. Employers now designate any “allowable” fee they wish, based solely on a cost target for their company. In these plans, any fee whatsoever can be designated for any procedure. For example, an employer can set $25 as an “allowable” fee for a dental cleaning, even though no dentists in the US may charge so little. The fee is merely a fairy-tale price concocted on the whim of the employer.

Meanwhile, the card given the employee still says “100% coverage.” But sadly, when employees use the benefits, they may discover the plan only covers $25 of a $90 cleaning. Few employees truly understand what is happening, and their anger is deflected onto the dentist. Instead, they should blame the employer, who is playing a deceptive shell game with its workers.

The whole driver of these shenanigans is the desire by employers to save benefit dollars. We can certainly empathize with that goal in this difficult economy for business. However, we think honesty with employees is a better path than deception. The honest thing to do would be to cut the benefit maximum, or lower percentage reimbursement for dental services. Unfortunately, that makes it a lot more obvious to employee-patients that benefits are being cut. Thus, the deception of employer-proscribed low “allowable” fees goes on.

We remind our patients once again that dental “insurance” is an inefficient contrivance born in an era of high marginal tax rates. The crucial test of your dental plan is whether it pays out more in benefits each year than the premiums you pay for it. With employers cutting benefit plan subsidies and at the same time lowering “allowed fees,” fewer and fewer dental plans are worthwhile. It seems remarkable, but if an employee is covered by a FLEX benefit or 125S Cafeteria plan, it is usually more economical to drop the dental benefit plan. Paying for dental expenses by a FLEX or Cafeteria plan is more efficient, and gives you complete freedom of choice in choosing dentists!

by Kim Henry, D.M.D.

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Selecting a Dentist

How to select a dentist?  That is a good question. What is really important?

Is the dentist honest?  In the old days, patient selected professionals from affiliations in churches and civic organizations.  You picked a guy that acted honestly in his public dealings.  A guy that would cheat on his wife would probably try to cheat you in billings.  Sadly, people think choosing professionals this way is passé.

Is the dentist competent? What good are low fees if treatment is done incompetently?  Competency should be your next criteria. Dental lab technicians can tell you in a heartbeat which dentists turn in the best work.  But it may be difficult to get a technician to talk to you about this subject.  Any general dentist who is a member of the RV Tucker Gold Study Club (very active in Oregon), the Academy of Operative Dentistry, or the Academy of General Dentistry are probably very competent dentists.

Public records of your State Dental Board are an invaluable resource in screening dentists.  See if you Board has any disciplinary actions against dentists in your area for either dishonest or incompetent practice..  Look for actual consent orders against dentists. Not just complaints, as any disgruntled patient with a balance can lodge a baseless complaint.

Is the dentist reasonable in fees?  Naturally, you will find the highest fees in upscale parts of town.  Be aware that if you seek dentists with expensive gadgets like lasers or CAD/CAM machines, you will pay higher fees!  But the biggest way you will save money is by seeking a general dentist who does most work in-house. Former military dentists are likely to do more specialty procedures.  Ask a prospective office if the dentist does most root canals, difficult wisdom teeth, and implants himself.  Fees by general dentists are usually less than fees of specialists.

Is the dentist more interested in his profession or the money his profession brings?  A good indication is membership in state and local dental societies, as well as the organizations listed previously.  Beware of the professional fascinated with the expensive things in life outside the office. It’s pretty easy to pick up on this in conversation.  Ask a technical question about procedures, and a dentist interested in his profession will talk your ears off. You want a dentist who is truly fascinated by his profession, not one who merely views it as a means of income.

How not to select a dentist!

Preferred Provider listings- A great way to select against dentists with high ethics.

Yellow pages ads- Anyone can say anything in a phone book ad.  Courts have blocked professional associations from policing deceptive or misleading print advertising.

Referral from manufacturer’s websites- Manufacturers of expensive gadgets like lasers advertise to the public, and infer that any dentist with one of their expensive products is “state of the art.”  They give free patient referrals on their websites to dentists who purchase their products. Expensive gadgets are nice toys, but ultimately have little effect on the quality of treatment.

Anyone who advertises themselves as a “Cosmetic Dentist.”- There is no such recognized specialty in the profession.

Anyone who advertises themselves as a “holistic” dentist with a “metal-free” practice- You will have a scam artist for certain.