Last Tuesday evening I was lying on my couch watching TV. All of a sudden, I felt a twinge along the upper left gum line. I was sure it was just my imagination—or maybe the fault of the cold sparkly beverage I'd just cracked open. I felt the twinge again the next morning (sans beverage) and then again—rather forcibly this time—the following night.

By Thursday morning I was on the phone with my dentist. "Yes, it’s the molar—the one with the cracked filling you told me about last year. Yes, it hurts. Specifically? It feels like something in there is short-circuiting. What would you recommend I do next?"

A few hours later I was reclined in the dentist's chair, squinting at old x-rays of M#15, the guilty molar.  After paying the $400 bill, my gums felt better, but my wallet was clearly catching a cold. So I went straight home to do what KCLs do best—research creative ways to save money on future dental visits. Here’s what I found out!

1. Pay with cash or direct reimbursement

A dental practice is just like any other business—there’s always the risk of a customer defaulting on payment. For this reason, many dental practices will offer a discount if you pay up front with cash. If you have insurance, ask your insurance provider or employer if you have access to an American Dental Association (ADA) program called Direct Reimbursement. This allows you to deposit money into a fund to be used only for dental expenses. Whether you pay with cash or with DR, because your dentist knows payment is guaranteed, they may be willing to offer you a discount.

2. Ask about financing

Many dentists and dental specialists now offer financing to patients. With financing, you have the option to pay off the costs of your dental care over a period of time. Financing may be available interest-free, in a series of payments or both. You may also be able to open a line of credit with your dentist (some boutique practices now have their own credit cards).

3. Negotiate

If you need care and can’t afford the regular rates, ask if you can negotiate a lower price. If you can combine a lower price with a cash payment, you may find your negotiating power gets stronger. Many health care professionals do operate on a sliding scale for patients with financial need. You may need to fill out an application or do other paperwork, but if you can get a lower rate, it’s worth the time you’ll spend. You can also ask if your dentist knows of any grants or programs you can apply for that can help make up the difference between what you can pay and what the procedure costs.

4. Work around your deductible and insurance coverage limits

With a bit of creative scheduling, you can often work around tough issues like the need to meet a preliminary deductible or stay below a certain maximum coverage limit. By staying mindful of when your policy ends each year, you can work with your dentist to maximize all available insurance coverage for dental care while minimizing out of pocket expenses.

5. Seek out dentist and hygienist education programs

If you’re lucky enough to have a dental school or hygienist certification program in your local community, you may be able to get the dental care you need for free or a vastly reduced rate. Often dental programs will offer free or low cost dental care for common procedures like cleanings and fillings.

6. Check out new dental care options for adults and kids under the ACA

Finally, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. the ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) requires insurers to offer a basic package of pediatric oral care (for individuals aged 19 and younger) as part of compliance beginning in 2014. Many states (and all states that have opted to participate in the federal exchange in lieu of state-sponsored exchanges) are now offering separate dental riders for adults as well. Be sure to stay mindful of annual enrollment cycles and new ACA-compliant dental care plan options as they become available.


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