Susan Grossman has certainly been through the ringer with dental work. Over the past decade, she's shelled out some $100,000 for bone replacements, teeth removals and cappings, and most recently, a bridge covering 10 teeth. And there's still more necessary work ahead.
How does she pay for this? Mainly through savings, since her dental insurance annually covers only $1,000 of costs, says the now-retired New York City resident.
Her plight underscores a painful issue: the possibility of big dental bills hitting retirees once they're on a set or reduced income. Evidently, many would find such costs unbearable: According to a 2013 survey by the national nonprofit Oral Health America, 40% of seniors can't afford a major dental procedure.
Medicare doesn't cover most dental costs, and when workers retire, many lose the group dental insurance they may have had through their employer. (In some states, poor adults can get Medicaid for help with their dental bills.)
However, experts say there are ways -- from insurance and discount plans to dental school offerings and beyond -- which can help with dental fees. And apparently, "consumers are becoming more confident about discussing costs" and payment methods with their dentists, says Robin Gelburd, president of FAIR Health Inc.
Some cost-cutting possibilities:
1. Dental insurance. Only a few plans for individuals -- vs. groups -- are available, and only in certain parts of the country. "Uniquely," however, AARP offers its members nationally available group dental coverage through Delta Dental Insurance Co., says Jeff Album, Delta Dental's public affairs vice president. AARP's dental choices include a plan with more extensive coverage, costing about $60 a month, and a less extensive plan, which runs about $40 a month, Album says.
2. Dental discount plans. These noninsurance membership programs give users discounts of 20%-60% on the cost of dental procedures. Members pay an annual fee of "typically less than $10 a month," says Allen Erenbaum, counsel at Consumer Health Alliance, a trade association. And they pay participating dentists directly for services. Three such plan providers include Careington (available through AMAC and other groups), New Benefits and America's Premier Benefits.
3. Dental schools. Experts say most, if not all, of America's 65 dental schools offer lower-cost services provided by supervised dentistry students. The fees: "They may be anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of what you'd pay in a dentist's office," reports Dr. Judith Jones, assistant dean for faculty development at Boston University's Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. A list of U.S. and Canadian dental schools is available at www.adea.org.
4. Third-party payment plans. If offered by a doctor or dentist, patients can get third-party financing, often through the use of health care credit cards. Typically, they'll provide an interest-free period.
But if patients don't pay their card debt within a set period, interest charges -- depending on the card issuer -- can be steep and slapped on the card's full balance, beginning with the first purchase. According to CreditCards.com, CareCredit, Citibank and Wells Fargo are among the major health care card issuers.
5. Payment arranged with dental offices. "Some dentists provide discounts to seniors," says Boston University's Dr. Jones. In addition, "many -- although not all -- dental offices will create payment plans for those who can't pay their full dental bill at the time of treatment."
Of course, maintaining oral hygiene and dental check-ups is essential. And planning ahead -- before retirement -- can help.
Says Dr. Tim Stirneman, a dentist in Algonquin, Ill.: "About five years before you think you will retire, go to the dentist if you haven't been in a while. Ask for a five-year plan to get your teeth in shape while you're still earning a salary."