More Americans have dental coverage than they did 20 years ago, but their spending on dental visits is significantly higher, according to a recent reportfrom the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) that tallied survey data from 1996 to 2015.
While the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) made dental insurance coverage much more common for children—88 percent of those under 21 were covered in 2015, compared with 73 percent in 1996—progress has been slower for adults, and especially seniors, the report found.
Most adults (72 percent) between the ages of 21 and 64 are covered, but just 38 percent of seniors are—up only slightly from 34 percent in 1996.
And while the mean cost of dental care per person per year seemed to peak about 10 years ago, it’s still much higher than it once was, even adjusted for inflation: $696 in 2015 compared to $565 in 1996. Costs for seniors, meanwhile, were even higher, averaging $912 per person in 2015.
After retirement, many people learn that Medicare doesn’t cover routine dental care at all. And even people with dental coverage can struggle to pay for costly procedures like root canals and oral surgery.
A few tips can help make the costs of dental care more manageable.
Tips for More Affordable Dental Care
- Practice good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste, and floss regularly. Avoid sugary foods and beverages, and drink plenty of water.
- Get covered if you can. Sign up for dental insurance if it’s offered at work—most plans pay for exams, X-rays, and cleanings, as well as a significant share of procedures such as fillings and crowns. Some health plans through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace also include dental coverage. And you may be eligible for coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs or Medicaid.
- Consider dental savings plans. While savings plans aren’t as comprehensive as insurance, they’re a good option for those who can’t get covered. An annual fee of $80 to $200 generally provides access to a large network of dentists who offer discounts of up to 50 percent for members. You can search for a savings plan at DentalPlans.com.
- Try community health centers and university dental schools. Both frequently offer low-cost dental care, the latter often provided by dental students who are supervised by faculty members. You can search for a center or school near you at toothwisdom.org.
- Bargain hunt. FairHealthConsumer.org and HealthcareBlueBook.com let you look up the cost of different procedures in your area, so you can comparison shop—or ask your regular dentist for a discount.
- Avoid unnecessary treatments. When in doubt, ask if a screening or procedure is really necessary. X-rays, for example, “are terribly abused,” says Jay Friedman, D.D.S., a dental adviser to Consumer Reports. If you haven’t had recent cavities, you only need a dental X-ray once every two to three years, Friedman says.