Chew on This: 14 Ways to Save at the Dentist

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Many Americans would rather be just about anywhere but a dentist's chair. About 4 in 10 adults (38 percent) didn't visit a dentist at all last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Thankfully the number is much lower for children -- 17 percent.) The reasons for avoiding the dentist are many, but not the least of them is the cost, especially for patients not covered by insurance or government programs. In 2014, spending on dental care amounted to about $350 a person, according to the American Dental Association. Here are 14 ways to save a bundle on dental expenses.
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Consumers with dental insurance should go over their policies to verify which services are covered, how much they can expect to pay in deductibles or coinsurance, and the out-of-pocket and coverage maximums. After a visit to the dentist, review the explanation of benefits, which details services provided, the amount paid by the insurance company, and any amount owed by the patient, to confirm its accuracy and minimize unwarranted dental expenses.
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In most instances, consumers with dental insurance can receive care from in-network providers with minimal out-of-pocket costs. But that's not the case for patients without dental coverage. And pricing for dental services can vary significantly from one provider to the next in the same area. Be sure to shop around to ensure quoted rates are reasonable. Healthcare Bluebook lists average prices for common dental services (and other medical procedures) by ZIP code.
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Consumers can save 10 to 60 percent on preventive, restorative, orthodontic, cosmetic, implant, and oral surgery services by enrolling in a discount dental plan. This is different from insurance; instead of premiums or copays, consumers pay an annual fee to get lower rates when paying the dentist out of pocket. Most plans can be used within 24 to 72 hours, while insurance policies typically come with waiting periods.
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Dental schools offer deeply discounted services to patients. All dental work is performed under the direct supervision of an instructor, who is also a licensed dentist, so the quality of care should be comparable to what the patient would receive in a regular dental office. Because the students are still learning, however, patients are likely to spend longer in the chair. A nationwide directory of accredited dental schools can be found on the ADA's website.
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Patients should know what they're getting into before starting a treatment plan. It's best to review the document in its entirety to confirm all services listed are necessary and covered by insurance. If money's tight, prioritize care from most to least urgent to curb costs. The dental provider should be able to provide additional insight and discuss the short- and long-term effects of foregoing recommendations on the treatment plan.
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Occasionally, dental offices provide free services to those who otherwise couldn't afford them. Free dentistry days typically attract large crowds, however, which means longer wait times and the number of services each patient can receive may be restricted. Still, such promotions can save consumers a bundle on dental care.
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Nonprofit agencies, including Dentistry from the Heart, provide dental care to the poor. Low-cost dental and community clinics also cater to those who can't afford treatment. Contact the local health department or United Way chapter to learn more about clinics offering free or reduced-price dental services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also provides a directory of federally funded community health centers.
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Dental offices sometimes allow patients to negotiate treatment costs, although proof of financial hardship may be required. Common negotiation tactics include requesting a discount or a rate similar to the amount the dentist would bill an insurer.
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Some dental offices offer interest-free payment plans to cash-strapped patients to make dental care more affordable. While this option doesn't necessarily reduce the amount owed, it beats paying the interest charged when relying on a credit card or dental financing. When requesting a payment plan, be prepared to share how much you can afford to pay weekly, biweekly, or monthly.
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Some dentists are willing to give a flat-rate discount to patients paying in cash, because they don't have to go to the trouble of filing an insurance claim. But don't expect the dental provider to advertise this, because discounts are typically extended on a case-by case basis.
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Dental offices occasionally run special promotions to attract new patients. Many are for preventive care and cater to people without insurance coverage. They may be featured on billboards or in local circulars, but it's a good idea to contact dental providers directly to inquire about undisclosed promotions available to both new and existing patients.
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Clipping coupons, whether virtual or paper, is a simple way to save money on dental care. Search local newspapers, classified ad booklets, Money Mailer, and Valpak to locate coupons for dental services. But it may be wise to steer clear of steeply discounted dental care on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, and to stick with a dentist after taking advantage of the initial promotion, for continuity of care.
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Health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts enable consumers to pay for out-of-pocket dental expenses using pre-tax dollars contributed to the accounts through payroll deductions, reducing taxable income and helping to pay health expenses without dipping into savings. The programs differ in that unused funds in an FSA can be lost if not used by a certain date, while any balance in an HSA remains with the employee, even after changing employers.
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Routine cleanings and exams are an essential component of good oral hygiene. Even for uninsured patients who have to pay out of pocket, the benefit of preventing problems or identifying and rectifying issues early easily outweighs the cost of leaving them untreated. The ADA also recommends brushing twice a day for two minutes and flossing once daily to minimize plaque buildup and prevent gum disease.