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5 tips to take the bite out of dental bills

Health care reform didn't include dental insurance for all. Fortunately, you don't have to grin and bear it.

By Stacy Johnson Jul 9, 2010 8:35AM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News.


A trip to the dentist has become symbolic of things we hate to do, for good reason. If having a stranger's hands in your mouth isn't bad enough, odds are good you're also swallowing the cost.


According to the National Association of Dental Plans (.pdf file), about 43% of Americans don't have dental insurance. If you're one of them, you don't have to just grin and bear it. There are ways to get dental work for less.


Let's start with the following news story I shot at a local dental college. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more ideas.

Go to school. As you saw in the story above, a local dental school is a place where you can get almost any kind of dental work done cheaply, often for half price. As with many discounts in life, however, there are limitations.


The first potential problem is the scarcity of schools. Check this list of dental schools from the American Dental Association and see if there's one near you.


The second potential problem is the quality of care. After all, these are students. But, according to the professor we interviewed for our story, this really shouldn't be a concern because students are overseen every step of the way by extremely qualified and experienced faculty.


But there's a price to pay for faculty supervision, and that's the third potential drawback of dental schools: time. What costs half as much at dental schools can often take twice the time. You may be in that chair for a long time as the faculty supervisor discusses your teeth with the students performing or observing the work.


If you can find a nearby dental school and don't mind giving up some time to save some money, that's one solution for lower dental bills. Let's "scope" out a few more.


Leave the country. Americans flock to Mexico's border towns to save money on everything from cigarettes to dishes, but Mexico is also a place to save big on dental care. Example? In the U.S., a porcelain crown can easily set you back $1,000. But in a Mexican border town like Juarez (across from El Paso, Texas), Tijuana (near San Diego) or Nogales (close to Tucson, Ariz.), you might have the same thing done for $250.


Concerned about standard of care? Some clinics cater to Americans and their expectations. For example, DentiCenter is a six-office (soon to be 14) chain of dentists in the border cities listed above. It was formed to service American clients, who make up 97% of its practice. Founder Juan Eng is a USC-trained dentist and American citizen who wanted to establish a practice that mirrors the appearance and expertise of American dental offices. He even accepts some American insurance plans.

The savings are substantial -- typically one third the price of the same procedures in the U.S. Braces, for example, typically run about $5,600 in the U.S. At DentiCenter, $1,500.


How can Mexican dentists charge a third of what their American counterparts charge? Simple: Mexican dentists get paid a third of the $200,000 average annual pay of their American peers.


If you opt for foreign dentistry, you won't be alone. According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, medical tourism has been growing at about 20% per year, with up to 6 million Americans expected to travel worldwide this year alone in search of cheaper health care.


Negotiate. If going to a dental school or leaving the country sounds a little extreme for a dental procedure, you can always try to save the old-fashioned way: Ask for a discount.


One national survey found that only 10% of patients had attempted to negotiate a lower dental bill, but of those who did, 64% had been successful.


It's not something you need to be embarrassed about. After all, dentists negotiate discounts with insurance companies and dental discount plans (see below). Why shouldn't they cut a deal with you?


The best way to negotiate is to be direct and honest. Tell your dentist proper dental care is important to you but that you're having trouble making ends meet. Ask if there's a way you might save.


Use your imagination. For example, you might try a quid pro quo. Ask for a discount in exchange for bringing in new patients.


Get a discount plan. If you don't have insurance offered through your employer, you can still try for a discount plan. A discount plan will charge an annual membership fee -- typically about $80 to $160 a year for singles, $130 to $200 for families -- in exchange for discounted treatment from participating dentists.


Typical discounts range from 30% to 50%. These plans might also net you discounts on procedures not typically covered by insurance, such as cosmetic procedures, or orthodontic procedures, which are usually only partially covered.


Just make sure the plan you choose is on the up-and-up. There's been a great deal of fraud associated with these plans in the past. Check with major providers like Careington, Aetna or Cigna. You can also check comparison sites like to see more than one plan at a time.


Before you sign on the dotted line, check with your state insurance commissioner to make sure the company is registered in your state. Find your state's department of insurance at this page of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.


And then there's the obvious: Make sure your dentist accepts the discount plan you're considering, and make sure you read the fine print and understand exactly what discounts to expect for various services.


Get insurance. If you don't have dental coverage at work, you can try to get a dental policy on your own, but it may not be cost-effective. Premiums can be $400 a year for an individual plan and $1,200 a year or more for a family. That's a lot to pay if you're just getting periodic checkups and cleanings.


And even if you do need expensive procedures like a root canal, you can't sign up today and hop in the chair tomorrow. You'll typically wait three to 18 months after signing up before that coverage kicks in. And then you'll still have to pay a large chunk of the bill: commonly 20% to 50%.


Another option is a dental HMO. You'll have fewer choices of dentists, but the plan will be less expensive -- about $200 a year.


To look for dental insurance, check out comparison sites like And if you don't like what you see, try persuading your employer to get a group plan. They're normally a lot cheaper than individual policies and typically cover more.


More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

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