Taming Dental Care Costs in Retirement

Most dental services aren’t covered by Medicare or regular health insurance. However, there are a number of ways to keep those trips to the dentist from taking such a big bite out of your retirement savings.

by NEA Member Benefits

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Key takeaways

  • Attempting to save money by avoiding dental care can end up costing you.
  • An oral exam can uncover problems such as diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and even certain autoimmune disorders.
  • Older adults with retirement incomes below certain thresholds may qualify for free or subsidized dental services.

Everyone knows that regular dental care is important to maintaining good health. And even though the physical pain of visiting a dentist has diminished over the years thanks to technology, the financial pain of those cleanings and x-rays and exams keeps getting more intense. That’s because regular oral health care is generally not covered by Medicare or most supplemental medical insurance policies.

Unfortunately, many seniors solve this problem by simply not visiting their dentist as often as they should. According to one recent study, almost 50 percent of seniors over age 65 have not visited their dentist in the past year. No wonder over 30 percent of older adults have untreated cavities and nearly the same percentage are losing teeth.1

Attempting to save money by avoiding dental care can end up costing you—both financially and physically. Researchers have found that your mouth is a window into your overall health. An oral exam can uncover problems such as diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and even certain autoimmune disorders. American Dental Association studies have shown a correlation between gum disease and pneumonia, heart disease and other serious health issues.

Low-cost options for low-income individuals

Older adults with retirement incomes below certain thresholds may qualify for free or subsidized dental services. You can find resources at toothwisdom.org, a site dedicated to increasing access to dental care, education and advocacy for the most vulnerable members of the community. In addition, check out the following services:

  • Medicaid. Certain states may cover some dental services through Medicaid. Check with your local Medicaid office to see what’s covered in your area.
  • Community Health Centers. Funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), health centers offer reduced-cost or free dental care thanks to dental professionals who donate their services. Search for nearby centers on the HRSA website.
  • Free clinics. The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics is a non-profit organization that seeks to broaden access to affordable health care for the medically underserved. Search for free dental care clinics from their website.

Take advantage of your NEA member benefits

Individual dental insurance plans on the open market often carry high deductibles and copays, which, when combined with premium costs, may not be much different than simply paying cash for dental services. But NEA members have two great dental insurance options:

  • NEA Dental and Vision Insurance Program. Unlike many dental insurance programs, NEA Member Benefits offers great coverage with some preventive care covered at 100% and no waiting periods.
  • NEA Retiree Health Program. This Medicare supplement program offers discounts on dental care. The program has competitive rates and automatic benefit increases to cover Medicare’s gaps. Plus, you can choose the providers you want.

Tips for lowering dental costs

Here are a few ways you can lower the cost of dental care.

Dental schools. Many dental schools operate clinics where care is provided by students (supervised by faculty members) at a reduced cost.

Dental savings plans. These programs are often less expensive than dental insurance plans. They work like a discount membership club. You pay an annual fee and can choose from a list of dentists who offer discounted services to members. Google “discount dental plans” for more information.

Payment assistance programs. These extended payment plans, which may be offered directly by some dentists, allow you to pay off dental bills over time with no interest costs or provide a discount for paying cash up-front. Some plans charge an annual fee and then provide preventive services such as annual exams, cleanings and x-rays for free or at discounted rates.

Negotiation. These days, the posted price is rarely set in stone, particularly for services, including dental work. Talk with your dentist to see if you can negotiate a lower price for certain services. To get an idea of what dental services cost, go to FAIR Health, a national not-for-profit corporation dedicated to bringing transparency to health care costs. You can research average costs for different dental services in your geographic area, which may give you some leverage in negotiating lower rates from your dentist.

Prevention. The best way to hold down any health care expense is to stay healthy. Get serious about your oral health and you may be able to limit your dental bills to bi-annual cleanings and a little exploratory poking around by your hygienist. The American Dental Association’s Mouthhealthy.org website lists the following tips:

  • Brush twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush. An electric toothbrush may be a better bet
  • Floss with string at least once a day. Consider a water flosser in addition to string floss
  • If you wear full or partial dentures, clean them daily
  • Drink lots of water
  • Quit smoking. Besides putting you at greater risk for lung and other cancers, smoking increases problems with gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss
  • See your dentist every six months for cleaning and annually for a full exam

 1 Source: SeniorLiving.org

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