July 10, 2011

Savvy Senior: Variety of options for seniors seeking low-cost dental care


DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: Where can seniors turn to find affordable dental care? I had dental insurance through my work for many years but lost it when I retired. What can you tell me? -- Flossing Frank

DEAR FRANK: Very few U.S. retirees have dental insurance today. Without coverage from traditional Medicare, and with private dental insurance typically costing too much to be feasible, most seniors are stuck paying full out-of-pocket prices every time they visit a dentist.

While there's no one simple solution to affordable dental care, there are a variety of options that can help cut costs.

One way you may be able to trim your dental costs is by simply asking your dentist for a senior discount, especially if you're paying upfront. Out-of-pocket payers save the dental office the cost and hassle of filing an insurance claim, so asking for a small 10 percent discount is not unreasonable.

Another cost-effective way to reduce dental expenses is to join a dental discount network. How this works is you pay an annual membership fee -- roughly $80 to $200 a year -- in exchange for 15 to 50 percent discounts on service and treatments from participating dentists.

To find a network, go to dentalplans.com (or call 888-632-5353) where you can search for plans and participating dentists by ZIP code, as well as get a breakdown of discounts offered.

Brighter (brighter.com, 866-893-1694), which launched in May in all states except Florida, Montana and Vermont, is another discounted dental service to check out. It gives subscribers access to a network of 25,000 dentists offering 20 to 60 percent discounts on cleanings, crowns, implants, root canals and other procedures. You can sign up for a free one-month plan or opt for the premium plan, which costs $79 per year for individuals and families.

Another way to get dental care at a lower price is at a dental school clinic. Almost every dental school in the United States offers affordable care provided by dental students who are overseen by experienced, qualified teachers. You can expect to pay as little as a third of what a traditional dentist would charge and still receive excellent, well-supervised care.

And for low-cost teeth cleanings, check with local colleges that offer dental hygiene programs. For training purposes, many programs provide teeth cleanings by their students for a fraction of what you would pay at a dentist's office. To locate dental schools or dental hygiene programs in your area, visit www.ada.org/267.aspx.

If you're strapped for cash, there are other resources that provide dental care to seniors at a reduced rate or for free.

Health centers: Federally funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), there are thousands of health centers around the United States, many of which provide discounted or free dental care to people based on financial need. To find a center near you, visit findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov or call 877-464-4772.

Local services: There are a few states, as well as some local programs or clinics, that offer discounted dental care to those with limited means. To find out what may be available in your area, check with your state dental director (see astdd.org for contact information), or your state or local dental society (see ada.org/statelocalorg.aspx).

Dental Life Network: Several programs provide free dental care for elderly and disabled people who can't afford to pay. To learn more or to apply for care in your state, visit nfdh.org or call 888-471-6334.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is the author of "The Savvy Senior" book.


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