4 ways to get cheaper dental care

By Michelle Andrews

(Money Magazine) -- Dental care can really take a bite out of your wallet. Even if you have insurance -- and just over half of people do, says the National Association of Dental Plans -- the typical co-insurance is only 50% on major procedures such as root canals, bridges, and crowns, which run $750 and up.

Here's how to manage those costs so that you don't end up putting too much money where your mouth is.

1. Don't rush for coverage. Monthly dental insurance premiums may be modest -- averaging $97 for a family, per the National Association of Dental Plans -- but that's because benefits tend to cap out at around $1,000 a person.

So if you don't already have coverage, you'll want to review premiums and out-of-pocket costs in light of your past and potential future usage. (Search ehealthinsurance.com for plans.)

Unlike medical care, dental needs are often foreseeable, says Matthew Messina, a Cleveland dentist and adviser for the American Dental Association. He suggests asking your dentist what you might expect this year -- from implants to replacement fillings -- and look back on last year's visits. If you typically get only cleanings, insurance probably won't be cost-effective.

"But if you've had a lot of root canals and crowns, chances are you'll need more," says Iowa City dentist Patricia Meredith. In that case, insurance may be a good buy -- as long as you get a plan in which your dentist is in-network.

2. Pay for prevention. Decided not to buy insurance? Don't skimp on those regular checkups. They may cost a few hundred dollars a year, but "investing in maintaining your teeth can help you avoid more expensive procedures down the road," says Meredith. A simple crack can be easily filled, for instance, but if it goes too long without care, it may require a more costly root canal.

3. Investigate discounts. Should you suddenly face a big-ticket procedure, consider enrolling in a dental discount program. Such plans entitle you to 10% to 60% off care within a few days of signing up. Prices run $80 to $160 a year for singles, $130 to $200 for families.

"Some are good deals, but you need to do your research," says Meredith. To avoid fly-by-night operations, don't buy based on an ad. Instead, call your dentist's office to find out what plans are accepted, and which give the best benefit for the care you need. Then weigh the discount against the cost.

Alternatively, see whether your dentist will give you a break for paying cash upfront, says Messina; he says you might get up to 10% off.

4. Ask about stopgaps. If you do have insurance but have maxed out the benefit, ask if any temporary measures will get you through until next year, when your benefits re-up; for example, a filling may stand in for a crown.

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