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Sector Report

Sector Report: The Bright Shine of Dental Benefits

Dental holds the unique distinction of being a benefit everyone wants but few want to use.

Anyone who’s ever had a root canal or a teenager with crooked teeth knows how expensive dental care can be, which is what makes dental benefits so appealing. According to MetLife’s 15th annual “U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study,” dental insurance is among the must-have benefits for employees, behind medical insurance, prescription drug coverage and 401(k) plans. That interest spans the gamut from millennials to baby boomers. “Dental benefits meet the unique needs of all the generations in the workforce,” said Randy Stram, senior vice president of group benefits for MetLife in Bridgewater, New Jersey. “It’s valued by everyone.”

Workforce's 2018 Hot Lists for dental insurers, health insurers and vision insurers.

Virtually all large organizations, and 67 percent of small organizations, now offer some form of dental benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation “2017 Employer Health Benefits Survey.” However, few of these plans are fully covered. Instead, dental insurance generally falls under the “voluntary benefits” category, where employees pay most or all of the costs themselves. “Over time, the cost of these benefits have shifted to the employee,” said Evelyn Ireland, executive director of the National Association of Dental Plans. She noted that last year 30 percent of dental benefits programs were paid for entirely by employees, up from 22 to 23 percent three years ago. “It’s a big shift,” she said.

These programs also have modest caps, usually between $1,000 and $1,500, which may not be enough to cover the full cost of major dental care. This can frustrate patients who don’t realize dental benefits are meant to offset the cost of care, not replace it, said Dave Preble, senior vice president of the American Dental Association’s Practice Institute in Chicago. “Patients don’t always understand this distinction.”

Even when employees cover the full cost of dental benefits, it’s still typically more cost-effective than paying for care directly. The benefits payment is pretax so it costs them less than actual premium cost, and by participating in group plans, employers can generally secure discounts and lower rates for care than if employees paid directly for services, Stram said.

No One Wants to Go

Despite all the savings and the health benefits of preventive dental care, consumers are still loathe to go the dentist. “About 40 percent of the population with dental benefits don’t go,” said Preble. Concerns about the cost, the pain and the time away from work can all contribute to this low usage rate. And until they make that first appointment, there is no one there nudging them in the right direction. “The dentist doesn’t know they exist so they can’t reach out,” he said. This is where employers should step in. “If they are going to provide the benefits, they should encourage employees to go to the dentist,” he said. It ensures they are taking advantage of the programs they are paying for and reduces the risk of emergency care, which can lead to absenteeism and lost productivity.

Along with targeted reminders, employers can provide employees with tools updates to track how much of their coverage they have used to date, and educate them about the health benefits of good oral care. Some programs also eliminate preventive care costs from premium limits to encourage proactive care and avoid higher cost claims.

These combined efforts can increase the usage rate and value of dental benefits offerings to employees and employers. “There is mounting evidence that increased oral health reduces medical costs,” Preble said. “If you want a healthy workforce, this is an easy way to get it.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.