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Preventive Dental Benefits Save Employers Money, Studies Find

Better oral care improves employee health and reduces health claims

A woman smiles while sitting in a dentist's chair.

Visiting the dentist twice annually for check-ups leads to better oral health and less major dental work down the road, most would agree, but new research shows that encouraging employees to get routine dental care also saves money on health care claims.

In light of these findings, employers should ensure that the design of their dental benefits promotes use of routine cleanings and exams.

Results from the Fifth Annual Guardian Workplace Benefits Study, Dental Benefits: A Bridge to Oral Health & Wellness, published in January, reveal how regular trips to the dentist can aid in early detection of potentially serious medical conditions. For instance, gum disease has been linked to cardiovascular risks and preterm low-birth-weight babies, tooth decay with osteoporosis and oral infections with diabetes.

"Encouraging employees to regularly visit their dentists not only promotes employee wellness, it can save a company money when it comes time to renew their group policies," said Marc Costantini, executive vice president of group and worksite markets at Guardia Life Insurance Co. of America, the study sponsor. "Regular dental visits can help with managing diabetes, lowering heart disease risk and contributing to a healthy pregnancy," added Randi Tillman, chief dental officer at Guardian.

Despite the benefits to good oral health, the study finds more than one in four adults fail to go to the dentist even once a year, and that:

  • Millennials are among the least likely to visit a dentist twice a year, and they cite cost as the primary reason.
  • Four in 10 adults have delayed recommended procedures, skipped exams, X-rays and tests in the past year due to higher out-of-pocket costs.

The Guardian study's results are based on surveys conducted in the spring of 2017 among 2,000 employee benefits decision-makers throughout the U.S. and 1,700 full-time employees.

Encouraging Dental Visits

Given the positive impacts of preventive dental care for both company spending and workers' well-being, employers should seek ways to encourage greater use of routine cleanings and exams through the design of their dental benefits, Costantini and Tillman said, such as by:

  • Covering preventive dental services at 100 percent. Some plans impose deductibles or require cost-sharing payments for routine check-ups. A more cost-effective approach is to cover, on a first-dollar basis, a minimum of two cleanings per year and consider adding a third cleaning for those who need it—especially if your organization has a high incidence of dental claims or an older or high-risk workforce.
  • Expanding your dental plan's definition of preventive services. Waive the deductible for preventive services, especially for in-network services, and exclude preventive services from being counted toward the plan's annual maximum.
  • Encouraging the use of in-network providers. Identify and bring into the network high-quality dentists most often used by employees to manage costs and increase use of preventive services. Streamline claim submission and payment processes for plan members so there's less paper work.
  • Enhancing plan member communication. Encourage use of online risk-assessment tools so that employees can better understand their risk for dental disease, and educate employees about the relationship between oral health and overall health. Distribute periodic reminders that preventive care services are covered and indicate the level of benefits provided.

Dental Care Expectations

"Consumer expectations are rapidly changing across most industries, and dental care is no exception," said Christopher Stevens, head of dental product management at Lincoln Financial, an insurance provider.

He cited Lincoln Financial's 2017 Dental Research Series, based on a survey of 1,000 adults across the U.S. Among the findings:

  • Most workers agree that dental insurance is a key employee benefit: 82 percent cite it as "very important" and 54 percent cite it as a "must-have." However, many employees lack knowledge about their insurance plans, and only half say their employer is a good resource to understand what's covered.
  • Cost perceptions are a barrier to care: 25 percent who have dental insurance say they have not been to the dentist in the past 12 months due to cost.

"Consumers may not be taking full advantage of their dental benefits due to a simple lack of knowledge about their insurance plans," Stevens said. "Often, dental insurance will fully cover the cost of preventive care such as annual or biannual dental visits and cleanings. If a quarter of these individuals—who indicated they have dental coverage—responded that they aren't going to the dentist because of cost, they're probably not making that connection."

In other findings, employees with dental coverage said that they:

  • Want their employer to provide general information about what's covered by their dental insurance plan (65 percent of respondents).
  • Would like their employer to provide a list of local in-network dentists (54 percent).
  • Would appreciate ratings or rankings of in-network dentists (34 percent).

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

Timely Reminders

February is National Children's Dental Health Month, co-sponsored by the American Dental Association.

"Regular dental care is a fundamental component to overall health and wellness—it's the same for toddlers and young children," said Amy Marko, senior vice president for dental and vision products at Starmount, a subsidiary of insurer Unum Group. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, delayed dental care for school-age children increases the likelihood that they'll need costly, major dental services, she noted. "Without regular dental care and hygiene, employees and their dependent children face other or more serious health concerns and higher health care costs."

Robert Delarosa, founding partner of Associates in Pediatric Dentistry in Baton Rouge, La., encouraged parents to take their children to a dentist by age one, "both from a disease standpoint and a financial perspective." Baby teeth decay in the same manner as permanent teeth do and are "subject to the same negative potential consequences, including infection, pain and loss of tooth structure leading to space loss and bite changes," he pointed out.

February is also the federally designated American Heart Month and the American Hearth Association is reminding people that treating gum disease may help lower blood pressure

"Employers face the loss of productivity and the price of high-cost claimants, such as for heart disease and emergency room visits" by not adequately covering dental care, Marko said. "Dental is often excluded from the wellness message, and frequently omitted from the evaluation of overall health care cost. It's time to connect dental wellness to overall health care costs."

Related SHRM Articles:

Dental Benefits Are Often Misunderstood, Underused, SHRM Online Benefits, July 2017

Give Your Dental Plan a Checkup, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2015

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