Seniors face distinct disadvantages when it comes to covering the cost of dental care:
- Seniors generally have a fixed income, and therefore money can be tight.
- Traditional health insurance generally does not cover dental care.
- Retirees generally do not have employer sponsored dental insurance to help them with their dental bills.
Reimbursable dental expenses can come as a shock to new retirees. Two-thirds of seniors do not have dental coverage, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Seniors who avoid dental treatment to save money get in trouble. Untreated dental problems are linked to serious medical problems, including heart disease.
A plan currently before Congress would add coverage for dental, vision and hearing aid costs to Medicare. But the legislation is still in its infancy and there is no guarantee that it will be passed.
For now, at least, the Tooth Fairy isn’t coming. Seniors are on their own to maintain their oral health on a limited budget. Here are our top tips for limiting dental expenses in retirement.
1. Register for Medicare Advantage
Medicare Advantage is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare, formerly known as Original Medicare.
These plans often cover costs that Medicare does not pay, including preventative dental benefits, such as cleaning your teeth.
Switching to a Medicare Advantage plan to save money on dental care, however, is not automatically obvious.
- These plans vary widely in their coverage and costs.
- If you switch from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare with an additional plan, you could lose the additional coverage if you later try to switch back to Original Medicare.
- Overall, seniors report being more satisfied with Medicare Original than Medicare Advantage plans.
2. Use a health savings account
You can save money by paying your dentist bills with money from a Health Savings Account (HSA).
HSAs allow people with high-deductible health insurance plans who are otherwise eligible to contribute a set amount of money each year to be used tax-free for qualifying medical and dental expenses.
The HSA contribution limits for 2021 are $ 3,600 for individuals and $ 7,200 for families.
An important note, however: generally, once you enroll in Medicare, you can no longer contribute new funds to an HSA. However, you can use the existing funds in your account to pay for dental services.
3. Consider alternatives to dental insurance
Besides insurance, there are many ways to cover the cost of dental care.
Did you know, for example, that university dental schools often offer free or reduced fees for dental care? Or that the charity clinics where you live can provide dental care at a reduced cost?
Dental tourism – traveling to another country with high standards of dental care and lower costs – is another approach that many have used.
For more ideas, read “10 Alternatives to Dental Insurance”.
4. See your dentist
When you are considering facing the costs of dentistry, your first step should be to schedule a dental exam. During the appointment, talk to both your dentist and the dentist’s accountant.
The dentist can recommend a plan for your treatment. Ask the dentist to tell you which procedures need to be done immediately and which can take a while. That way, you can plan your costs for the next year or two or more, and budget to cover the costs.
Then speak with the dentist’s accountant. Frankly say that you are on a tight budget for dental care and would like some help spreading the costs. The dentist can afford to pay for an expensive procedure in, say, two or more installments. Or have the most urgent procedure done this year and wait until next year to do something that can wait a bit.
5. Purchase dental insurance – or not
Is Dental Insurance Profitable? Saying “it depends” is not just a way to avoid making a difficult decision.
The plan you purchase, the cost of the services, and the work you will need to do all determine the value of this insurance to you.
If your teeth and gums are healthy and your dentist tells you that no expensive procedures will be needed in the near future, it may be a good idea to pay the dental bills entirely out of your own pocket.
Here’s how to find out: Look at your projected costs for next year with and without insurance. Then speak with your dentist’s accountant – he or she bills the insurance and sees the coverage limits for each plan. Ask if the insurance seems worth buying, given the recommended procedures and, if so, which insurers offer better coverage.
6. Get the discount
Some dentists will reduce the cost of their services by a specific amount – 10% is common – if you pay your bill in cash at the time of the visit.
Ask the receptionist or accountant at your dentist to find out if the discount is available.
7. Call for the best rates
When considering an expensive dental procedure, do what you would do if you bought a washing machine or had the house repainted: Call around.
Call other local dentists to find out costs and compare.
Additionally, Costhelper Health collects and publishes cost data for consumers, which can give you an idea of the prices.
8. Hang on to your employer insurance
The proportion of older people in the civilian workforce continues to increase. By 2022, more than 30% of people aged 65 to 74 will be working or actively looking for work, predicts the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bottom Line: If you or your spouse are “actively” working (AARP covers this distinction in depth) and have health and dental insurance through an employer, don’t automatically enroll in Medicare. It may be less costly for you to continue to get dental benefits through your job.
9. Use fluoride
Fluoride, a mineral found naturally in water, is a safe and inexpensive supplement that helps reduce tooth decay, according to the American Dental Association. As such, it can lower your dental costs.
Fluoride is added in small amounts to public water in many communities to help prevent tooth decay.
Ask your dentist if fluoridated toothpaste or mouthwashes are recommended for you, especially if you drink bottled water or if the water in your community is not fluoridated.
10. Be careful with dentists’ credit-based payment plans
Your dentist can offer you a payment plan. Before signing up, ask for a copy of the contract and take it home and study it. Interest payments and fees can potentially dramatically increase the cost of dental care, so make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into.
Self-insurance – simply putting a large amount of money into savings each month for dental expenses – can be a financially more secure plan.
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