Discount dental plans might save you money

wavy money

Have you heard about discount plans? They aren't insurance, though employers sometimes offer them in lieu of dental or vision coverage.

Instead, they're arrangements that charge participants a modest monthly fee — perhaps $10 — in exchange for big discounts off the regular fees at a list of participating providers.

Discount dental plans don't pay their providers, who participate in order to have business funneled their way.

Our family of three doesn't have extreme dental needs, though I suppose you never know when someone might need a crown or a filling.

Because my husband and I are self-employed, we spend about $1,300 a year out of pocket on dental X-rays, cleanings, exams and kid dental needs, such as sealants for our son's molars.

Spending $120 a year to save hundreds of dollars off that $1,300 tab sounds like a reasonable plan to me.

It's important to note that if your employer pays for all or some of your dental insurance, a discount dental plan probably isn't for you. But if you're self-employed, unemployed or retired, these plans are worth a look.

Who Has Dental Coverage?

176 million Number of Americans who have dental benefits.
150 million Number of Americans who have no dental coverage.
77% Percentage of policies that are dental PPOs.
98% Percentage of all benefits provided through an employer or group program.
Source: National Association of Dental Plans

If you search online, you'll find a number of plans open to individual subscribers. One I tested was Elevenbenefits.com, which offers a plan that costs $5 a month, or $55 a year if you pay ahead.

For that sum, participants get 15% to 50% off their dental bills at participating providers. That could make sense for our family.

We already have a dentist we really like, though we've only been seeing him for about eight months. The practice is clean, the equipment appears to be cutting edge and the dentist and hygienist seem very professional.

That dentist charges $78 for an exam, $56 for four bite-wing X-rays, and $93 for a cleaning, for a total of $227, or $1,362 if all three of us visit twice a year.

The discount plan lets potential subscribers search for dentists in their area, so I typed in our ZIP code and searched for dentists within 15 miles of home.

Alas — our current dentist is not on the list. I asked them, and they do not participate in any discount dental plan.

There were plenty of other dentists on the list, and many of them had offices that are an easy car or bus ride from home.

I did notice, however, that there are not quite as many providers on the list as it would seem, because doctors from the same practice are listed individually. That does make it easier to find the doctor who interests you, of course.

I picked four listings at random and called each one. I explained to each that I'm exploring our dental options and would like to know their prices for the same services we get from our existing dentist: exam, bite-wing X-rays and cleaning.

Those are the only services I'm sure we'll use, though the discount dental plan apparently applies to crowns, cavities and other dental work (but not braces).

The first office quoted me a total of $215 without the discount, or $110 with the discount. Nice! If all three of us visit the dentist twice a year, the discounted plan would save us $647 annually.

The next call didn't go as well. The second office wanted $260 for the combined exam, cleaning and X-rays. The receptionist had never heard of the discount plan.

The third office charges between $175 and $200 for the three services I asked about. They were happy to give us a 5% discount for paying in cash, but they also knew nothing about a discount plan.

Finally, I called office No. 4. They charge $212, and they had never heard of this discount plan.

Are you sensing a theme here?

I can't tell whether the discount plan's list of participating dentists is out of date, wrong in some other way or the receptionists at offices two, three and four just didn't know about it.

It probably matters to the discount plan administrators, but I don't think the reason matters much to me. My financial Spidey sense suggests that using the discount program at any of those dental practices will be a hassle at best and a "Sorry, we don't take that anymore" at worst.

The folks in the first office, on the other hand, sounded like they're on the ball. I looked up that dentist's reviews on Angie's List and Yelp. There are no reviews for him on Yelp, but four Angie's List members think he's good at what he does.

I'll book an introductory appointment and compare the experiences. After that audition, we can decide if it's worth the money to keep our current dentist.