Dental innovations Featured

7:44am EDT June 29, 2005

Employers today face tough challenges when it comes to benefits, striving to maintain and strengthen their offered benefits in an environment of rising benefits costs. Increasingly, however, they are finding a powerful ally in this quest -- access to dental networks and discounts at low, or even no, employer cost.

The inclusion of dental access in employers' health offerings may actually lower overall benefits costs and reduce absenteeism. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 164 million hours of work are lost due to employee dental disease or dental visits each year. Additionally, the connection between good dental health and good overall health is well-documented. In fact, according to the Academy of General Dentistry, as many as 90 percent of systemic diseases, which affect several parts of the body, also show up in the mouth.

To help employers offer attractive dental options, carriers are rolling out new, creative products that provide excellent value for employees while demanding little or no employer subsidy. These options fall into the category of "voluntary" benefits, in which the employer's chief role is to assess program quality and provide convenient access.

Discount cards

One of the new options available to employers is the dental discount card. Discount cards are not insurance -- there are no co-payments, claim forms, deductibles or annual limits. Rather, for a few dollars a month, an employee can possess a dental discount card that offers significant discounts -- up to 50 percent or more off of a typical dentist's charges.

From the employer's perspective, this is a very simple and inexpensive benefit to administer. The benefit is communicated to employees, enrollment is handled by the carrier and -- the best part -- the program doesn't generate dental claims or paperwork. Naturally, the employer may opt to offset some or all of the cost of the discount card --- a per-employee expense often only in the double digits.

This program can have an especially profound impact on employees who have been living without dental coverage. Even if they pay for the card themselves, the fee may be offset by the savings realized during their first dentist visit.

Offering a dental discount card to employees may be a viable option for employers who do not offer a dental plan or who no longer can afford to do so. Research indicates that dental discount programs have the highest participation rate among voluntary programs, indicating that employees appreciate the value of saving on dental services.

Many voluntary programs offer employers the flexibility to structure the discount card program to access dental services either through a preferred-provider organization or through a traditional indemnity structure. The programs can be adjusted to meet the employer's threshold of affordability, while remaining attractive to workers. Cost-sharing for the benefit might be as high as 50/50, and certain restrictions --such as waiting periods for major services and orthodontia - may be imposed.

Depending upon the carrier, employees may also have access to sophisticated online tools that help price procedures and manage benefits, and even offer tips on better dental care.

Moving forward

Whether you are planning to provide dental benefits for the first time, or are trying to manage your existing offering more effectively, dental discount cards can deliver an excellent value for you and your employees. Always consider your options in light of your overall benefits strategy, then seek the advice of your insurance broker or consultant to investigate emerging approaches. As you're assessing carriers, look for one with the following key characteristics.

A robust dental provider network with quality dentists

A range of programs and subsidy designs

Flexible billing options

Online tools to help workers manage their benefits

Whether you choose a no-cost or low-cost plan, you will be providing your employees access to services that will help them better care for their health and their family's health.