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Take a bite out of orthodontist bills

Braces make a world of difference -- and not just for cosmetic reasons. Here are some ways to bring down the costs.

By Donna_Freedman Jun 13, 2012 8:17PM

Image: Dental insurance (Creatas/SuperStock)Like any dental care, orthodontic treatment is costly. But there are a few ways around the high cost of a healthy smile.

These days the emphasis is on health as much as appearance. Properly aligned teeth and jaws improve the way a person bites, chews and speaks.

Flashing the tin grin now will affect dental exams in the future, too.

Teeth that fit neatly together are also "easier to clean and maintain, which means they're less prone to plaque formation, cavities and gum disease," according to a staff-written article on MayoClinic.com.

 

Not all dental insurance plans include orthodontic treatment, and more than 130 million Americans have no dental coverage of any kind. If that's you and someone in your family needs braces, keep reading.

Deeply discounted care

Depending on your income level you might be eligible for free or nearly free orthodontic care through programs such as Smiles Change Lives  and the Smile for a Lifetime Foundation. The American Association of Orthodontists has a state-by-state list (.pdf file) of programs providing this kind of care.

Note: Each program has different qualifications -- e.g., that the child can't be older than 18. Because it can take up to a year to be approved, look into these programs now, but prepare to wait.

Another cost-cutting tactic: Seek treatment at a dental school with an orthodontics program. The total bill varies depending on the school (the orthodontists association doesn't track pricing), but it will definitely be lower than that of an established orthodontic practice.

Some colleges accept Medicaid-authorized cases. It's also possible that a child with an unusually challenging malocclusion will have treatment fees waived entirely, according to Dr. Sundaralingam Premaraj of the University of Nebraska.

Since university programs may not offer as many appointment options as a full-time orthodontics practice, this isn't an option for everyone. Additionally, there's no guarantee your child will be accepted; dental schools seek a mix of common and unusual cases in order to give residents the most comprehensive training possible.

If you can work within those parameters, though, you'll save some bucks. The AAO maintains a list of accredited orthodontics schools in 32 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and five Canadian provinces.

Two more tactics

No dental school nearby? Don't qualify for reduced-fee care? Try a discount dental plan, for which you pay an annual fee and get treatment at discounts of up to 60%. Some of these plans include orthodontic care.

The savings can be considerable. Steven Less, of Vernon Hills, Ill., got estimates that ranged from $4,930 to $6,200. Through a discount dental plan Less found an orthodontist who charged $2,998 -- and who offered a 5% discount for full payment upfront. Thus he wound up paying $2,848 for his son's braces, a savings he calls "incredible."

"That's three thousand found dollars," Less says.

Look for plans through sites like New Dental Choice and DentalPlans.com. Before you sign up for a plan, make sure that orthodontists in your area participate and are accepting new patients.

Finally, try negotiating a better price. In an article called "Tips for keeping dental costs down," Consumer Reports suggests researching typical insurance-paid rates in your region and asking orthodontists to accept that fee (or less) in cash. Look up those rates at FairHealthConsumer.org and HealthCareBlueBook.com.

 

Readers: Have any kids in braces? Are you paying out of pocket or does your insurance plan chip in?

More on MSN Money:

16Comments
Jun 19, 2012 9:40PM
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The cost of braces is ridiculous.  And it is all the same regardless of whether you get Invisalign, standard braces or 6 months smiles.   My health insurance is top notch but only pay for 50% of the cost of braces....but WAIT.  Only 50% up to $3k.  So only a $1500 max.   Insurance companies need to realize there is nowhere on the planet you can get braces for $3k and pay 50% off the actual cost up to $6k
Jun 14, 2012 10:05AM
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I'm an orthodontist so I see things a little differently.  The average orthodontist runs a practice that carries a 60% overhead.  So that means 40 cents on every dollar goes to profit.  In the case you illustrated for the discount dental plan, 60% of let's say $5000 fee is $3000 or the fee quoted to the patient ($2998).  That means the orthodontist makes no profit.  OK, so let's assume this orthodontist runs a very efficient practice so we will make it 50% of $5000 or a profit of $500.  Not much considering it takes two years to treat a patient plus the education and preparation involved.  
I would then wonder how many corners are cut to improve the bottom line.  Like if this patient was less than a perfect elastic wearer and needed more than 24 months to complete treatment, would he be given the chance or would the discount orthodontist say you paid for 24 months.  The braces come off next time.  And are the retainers included in the discount fee or is that an extra charge at the end?  I've seen that done.

Hopefully it all works out for the best but this is America and you tend get what you pay for most of the time.
Jun 15, 2012 11:19AM
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aside from the listed discount dental plans above there is also:
True Dental Discounts - www.truedentaldiscounts.com that offers 20-60% in dental savings.

@Donna_Freeman the link for the article "Tips for keeping dental costs down" is a 404 error link same with the "no dental coverage of any kind"... other than that its a great article thanks!
Jun 14, 2012 10:45AM
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The brother of one of my oldest friends is an orthodontist.  He told me that he grosses approx. $1.5 million as a member of a group practice.
My wife is a dentist and sometimes regrets not being an endodontist.  She says that they are grossing about $2 million in our area. It's certainly not hard work and the liability is minimal.

Jun 14, 2012 12:56AM
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@Oedgar: You might check out the dental plans, which pay up to 60%. Look for orthodontists in your area through the plan sites and find out how much they'd cover. The guy I interviewed had estimates of up to $6,200 and found an orthodontist who would do it for slightly under $3,000 plus a 5% discount if he paid in cash upfront.
I hope you have similar luck.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.
Jun 19, 2012 4:02PM
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Another option to see if you could is to get two dental plans.  Maybe one parent can work part time at a company with a dental plan.  

Dental fixes was extensive for our family and the only time I could afford the copay was when both of us had a good dental plan.  

It is well worth working part time to pick up a dental plan if you can find it.
Jun 14, 2012 6:05PM
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I had orthodontics as a child and wasn't able to wear my retainers so ended up with "late" braces at 46 due to issues with my teeth.

I ended up with a minor oral surgery to correct a defect not diagnosed when I was younger. I have been out of braces for several years now and it was the best quality of life improvement I could have done for myself.

I was fortunate that my employer provided a modest assist in paying for the work.

Jun 13, 2012 9:37PM
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Thanks, Donna, for these tips.  My oldest son is going to need extensive orthodontic work, and I had pretty much resigned myself to having to pay it all out of pocket (no dental insurance).  I may not qualify for any of these things, but who knows what will turn up!

 

Oct 31, 2013 5:17AM
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I think There are many children who needs braces and I am also a Orthodontist but the cost of orthodontist can be very extremely scary. Nice information.

<a href = "http://www.bracesbyhenry.com/ ">Orthodontist San Diego</a>

Aug 13, 2013 6:16PM
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Typically, discount dental plans usually provide a flat 20% discount on orthodontic work, although depending where in the country you live, I know some plans that actually give you discounts closer to 35%... where others only give you 15% off.

If you can get dental insurance through your employer, then by all means use it to save on orthodontic work. However, if you have to pay for dental insurance yourself then discount plans can be an especially smart alternative to private dental insurance, especially when it's combined with a Dental Savings Account.

Jan 7, 2013 3:21PM
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Thanks for this article! One of my friends is looking for an <a href="http://www.arbourlakedental.com/treatments/ortho">orthodontist in Calgary</a> that can be affordable to him. Also, thanks to everyone for the helpful comments! I'll be sure to share this page with him!
Sep 25, 2012 6:06PM
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That sounds like a plan to me! It is very hard to pay for dentist work ( http://www.goducosmiles.com ), especially when it comes to braces. I feel very bad for my parents, who had to fit six kids with braces, and one of those needed braces twice!
Jun 13, 2012 11:17PM
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And sometimes even if you do have insurance coverage, it pays very little towards the total cost. My children together need extensive two-phase orthodontics, to the tune of $12,000. Our insurance will pay $3,000 of this. I will spend years paying for this. Dental schools are too far from here to look into that. I sure hope our 11-yr-old truck and 5 yr old car will hold up for 4 more years.
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Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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