DENTAL INSURANCE: WORTH THE PREMIUM YOU PAY … OR SIMPLY A “TIME PAYMENT PLAN”?

 

 

 

Op-ed by D. Kenton Henry

“Is dental insurance really worth the premium I pay?” is one question I am asked frequently. It is often followed, almost instantly, by―”Or am I simply paying for my dental work on a time a payment plan?”

My answer to both questions is a definitive, “Maybe.”

If you, as the majority do, have dental insurance through your employer, that employer is subsidizing all or part of your premium. This convenience makes for a solution to the equation, more favorable to you. In contrast―if you are self-employed, retired, or otherwise personally have to pay the full amount of a dental insurance premium―the opposite may be true. That is unless you take some straightforward advice, I am about to provide. If you do not, you most likely will only be spreading your cost for dental work over time. Even worse, dental insurance could prove to be a “loss item” in that you will have paid more in premiums than you will ever receive in benefits.

Short of taking a long drive and crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico to obtain your dental work, what can you do to offset the cost of say, a dental implant, which, on this side of the border, is going to run from $3,500 to $7,000?

Let me preface this by with a premise or three:

#1) With no insurance company is “the sky the limit”. I’m referring to the fee they are going to pay a dentist for a particular dental procedure. For example, no insurance company is going to accept a fee of $10,000 for a single porcelain crown. Not even their share of that cost, which is typically 50%. So what is the limit of a fee the insurance company will cover? That limit must be contractually defined, and the limit most insurance companies abide by is, “reasonable and customary” or “reasonable, usual, and customary”. These are empirical standards an insurance company uses to determine whether to pay a fee. Or how much of a fee to pay. If the dentist charges the general prevailing rate in your geographical area, they are going to pay the portion for which they are contractually obligated. Basically, it’s the average charged in your neighborhood. You will be charged more in Beverly Hills, California and less in Brenham, Texas “where the cows think it’s heaven”. Additionally, if “usual” is part of the definition, the fee has to be in line with what this particular dentist charges for a particular procedure. If fee is disproportionate either, or, both, ways―the maximum amount paid by the insurance company will be the limit set in their fee schedule.

#2) A dental insurance plan is either a provider network plan or a non-network plan. If it is a network plan, it is usually either a Dental Preferred Provider Organization (DPPO) Plan or a Dental Health Maintenance Organization (DHMO) Plan. If it is the first, you may go outside the network of dentists with which the insurance company has contracted but will most likely pay a higher cost for doing so. With the latter, you must remain within the network of dentists or, you have no insurance coverage whatsoever. For either of these options, you pay a lower premium than if you purchase a non-network or “any dentist” plan. The reason is that you agree to utilize or, at least, consider utilizing a dentist with whom the insurance company has contracted to charge you a lower fee than they would without the contract. This limits the insurance companies losses and brings increased traffic to the dentist.

#3) This is perhaps the most important part. If you purchase a non-network dental insurance plan, you can, almost, be assured you will be charged more than the insurance company deems acceptable. Additionally, you will be responsible for any dollar amount above their “reasonable and customary” rate. However, if you purchase a network plan, and go within the network of dentists, you will not be held responsible for any “excess” charges. Any charges above the reasonable and customary rate, the dentist will be forced to “write off”. In this situation, you will never have to worry about a surprise bill or claim. If a policy says your share of the bill is 20% or 50%, it will be that and not 20% or 50% plus any excess charges.

Assuming you accept you must acquire a network plan, in order to limit you own losses and surprise dental bills, the challenge becomes, “How do you find a quality dentist willing to accept a lower fee for treating you?” The typical HMO dental provider is typically someone straight out of dental school or who otherwise needs to build their patient base. In return for sending patients their way, the dentist is willing to accept a meaningfully lower fee. If the dentist is a PPO provider, they may have been in business longer, have more experience, and perhaps a reputation for having better skills. But they are willing to accept a somewhat lower fee in return from the many employees a large company may send their way. The dentist who isn’t willing to participate in any network apparently feels they have all the clients they need. That or their reputation is so great it will draw all the traffic they require.

The problem is, unlike a large oil company, as an individual, or family, you don’t bring enough “volume” to the table to bargain for a lower dental fee. At least not by yourself. Therefore, you have to identify and purchase your dental insurance from an insurance company which has the reputation of insuring a large number of employees of that oil company. As well as having a reputation for paying their claims in a timely and efficient manner. A manner such that the dentist wants to be contracted with them. From your standpoint, you want that insurance company to have a reputation for the same when it comes to you and not have to worry about claim disputes.

Another challenge is, at $6,000 for a dental implant, your dental benefit may not go too far. Secondly, does your insurance plan cover implants in the first place? Again, the sky is not the limit. The average dental plan covers a maximum of $1,000 of dental treatment per year. You can pay a higher premium for incremental benefits up to a maximum of $5,000. But a policy which pays that much in year one would cost a fortune and there is typically a twelve-month wait for major dental work to be covered. As such, you may want to find a plan which increases to that limit with each passing year and is available at what you consider a reasonable cost.

How do you find a dental policy which does not subject you to “excess” costs; allows you to see a highly skilled dentist, utilizing the latest technology and performing the most advanced form of treatment; all at a competitive premium? And this from a company which pays the claims they are contractually obligated to pay while doing so in a timely fashion?

This is where I, and my thirty-three years experience in the medical and dental insurance business, come in. My experience as a patient and consumer is even longer. After being in braces for eight years, I had all my front teeth knocked out in an auto accident when they impacted the steering wheel. I was wearing a seat belt, which saved my life, but not a shoulder strap. I’ve had to have the dental work replaced on three occasions since that senior year of high school. This year, I proceeded with what will be one double crown and, ultimately, two implants. (Ouch, is right!) I was not willing to accept this type of work from a mediocre dentist―and certainly did not care to pay cash for it! So I found a policy, issued by a large, financially sound insurance company, with a reputation for excellent customer and claim service. Then I found a policy which ultimately pays the maximum $5,000 annual benefit. In order for it to be affordable to me, it started, December 1 of 2018, at a calendar year benefit of $1,500―immediately went to $2,500 January 1, of this year―and will go to a $5,000 benefit this coming January. So I only paid for a $1,500 benefit for one month before it jumped to a $2,500 benefit! During this year I acquired the double porcelain crown and the bone graft and post for one dental implant. In 2020, I will have the crown for the implant post attached, when my calendar year benefit is $5,000. The second implant is optional, and I will probably have that work done in 2021 when my benefit remains $5K.

Once I knew what company to go with, the final step in selecting my dental insurance policy required finding the right dentist. I reviewed the insurance company’s list of network providers and researched the dentist’s reputation via credentials and reviews. I won’t belabor that but, suffice it to say, I found a dentist who met my requirements. He is very conveniently located relative to any resident of The Woodlands or Spring and, in my opinion, is well worth going to if you reside anywhere in Montgomery County or Northwest Harris County. He utilizes the latest technology, has a great and skilled staff, and a decent, very professional, if not overly effusive, chairside manner.*

 

In summation, in order to make dental insurance worth your while, you need to:

1) accept you need to acquire a “network provider” dental plan

2) find a policy which pays a reasonable benefit based on your foreseeable need, at an affordable premium and

3) allows you to go to a skilled dentist convenient to you

I have done all the homework for you. For over three decades, I have specialized in medical, Medicare-related, and dental insurance. I provide objective quotes from established “A” rated companies and quality customer service. Among the companies I represent are Aetna, Ameritas, Anthem, BlueCross BlueShield, Cigna, Delta Dental, Humana, and UnitedHealthcare. I am located in the heart of The Woodlands and am accessible from my websites Allplanhealthinsurance.com and TheWoodlandsTXHealthInsurance.com. You may also feel free to contact me at my numbers below.

I look forward to working with and assisting you in acquiring any of the above referenced products.

D. “Kenton” Henry                                                                                                               Editor, Agent, Broker Office: 281-367-6565                                                           Text my cell @ 713-907-7984                          http://TheWoodlandsTXHealthInsurance.com                              http://Allplanhealthinsurance.com                                   http://HealthandMedicareInsurance.com https://linkedin.com/in/kentonhenryinsuranceconsultant

*(Neither I nor my agency and websites are affiliated in any way with a particular dentist or dental office. Neither do we receive compensation from the same for any recommendation we may make.)

The State of Health Insurance for 2017 (or “If It Weren’t For Bad News . . .)

HEALTH BLOG PIC 1

By D. Kenton Henry, editor

 

We are more than half-way through 2016 and three months away from the scheduled beginning of the 2017 Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual and family health insurance Open Enrollment Period (OEP). All of which finds this broker and many of his clients still reeling from the this year’s OEP which ended in February.

By last September, the rumor was health insurance premiums would not be inflating. That was quite encouraging to myself and to my clients who inquired as to such. However, what was unsaid―and to our shock―was what we learned with the commencement of OEP, November 1. Specifically, all carriers in southeast Texas (my major market) were eliminating Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans and forcing all new policyholders to accept Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plans in their place. Anyone who knows anything about the latter knows that, with this type of plan, the patient must obtain treatment within the network or have no coverage whatsoever. For the young and bulletproof this seemed no great compromise. But to the middle-aged and older, whose health problems are moderate to very serious, it was a huge one. My existing PPO plan clients who were not grandfathered, including myself, were forced by the state’s largest insurance carrier (among others) to accept HMO coverage as a substitute or lose coverage altogether effective January 1, 2016. I scrambled to find acceptable replacement coverage for over 150 of my clients from the 2017 HMO plan options. This endeavor materialized into a “Mission Impossible” style nightmare as the HMO networks made available to them had nothing approaching the larger number of provider doctors and hospitals to which the employees and dependents of large employer plans had access. My clients learned they would be unable to utilize the providers in their current (and now former) PPO plans. It was mostly an exercise in futility attempting to find all of a person’s providers in any one network and, even if that person were so lucky, the inconvenience of getting their Primary Care Physician to refer them to a specialist was another cumbersome hurdle most considered an unwanted liability. After first enrolling in a higher cost Silver Plan offering doctor’s office copays, I myself, before the close of OEP, switched to a lower cost Bronze (non-copay plan) with another company. This after realizing it was virtually impossible for my physician to successfully maneuver the referral process.  I made the decision it was best to take the premium savings involved in the benefit downgrade and have it for the occasional doctor’s visit which I have found to average $150. I save much more than this by having gone with a Bronze plan and―so far―it has worked out for me.

Since the close of OEP my phone rings throughout the week with people pleading with me to get them out of their HMO plan and into PPO coverage so they may see the doctor of their choice. I have only one PPO medical plan I can refer them to. This plan made itself available after the close of OEP but it is a hospital system plan which requires the patient remain in the system or face high out-of-network expenses. Furthermore, if the prospect has not had what the Department of Health and Human Services and ACA call a “Life Changing Event” they cannot change to a new plan at this time and must wait until October to enroll for a January 1 effective date. To add personal insult to injury, the plan does not even allow brokers and agents to be appointed with them for the purpose of doing business. Any business we refer or submit to them is done strictly on a “pro bono” basis. The only good news to be had for the consumer is that premiums not only stabilized but, in the case of those forced to migrate to HMO coverage, may have even gone down. Of course. Why shouldn’t they? The forced migration took client/patients from a position of having the final say on who their provider was to a position of having their providers, and therefore, treatment rationed. Most do not consider the trade off a worthy one. I know I do not. Of all my clients on individual and family PPO plans, forced to exchange such, some were small business owners. Those that had the minimum two W2 employees were able to switch to “Group” (employer based coverage) and maintain a PPO plan and provider network. If you fit this profile, please contact me. I can assist you in acquiring group coverage at any time throughout the calendar year.

My clients ask me if I expect PPO plans to re-enter the individual and family market in 2017. I tell them we will have to wait until the beginning of the OEP October 15th. But I advise them not to bet the ranch on it. If insurance companies do reintroduce PPOs, it will be only to entice policyholders to make a plan switch which would require a new contract (policy) in which brokers and agents would be excluded from compensation. This would be done in an effort to wipe the insurance companies books clean of the liability for our compensation. Their rationale is they can now put a great deal of the cost of enrolling people on the American taxpayer by directing prospective enrollees to the state and federal health insurance exchanges. The lion’s share will be directed to Healthcare.gov.

But what of the financial health and solvency of the insurance companies and their plans? Today’s feature article, from the New York Times (below) describes the push to ration provider access and treatment. Of course, they do not use those words, choosing instead to describe it as a move to “curb” cost in an effort to stabilize premiums. In spite of such, the insurers, for the most part, still struggle for solvency. The article explains that companies overestimated the number of ultimate enrollees and underestimated the cost of providing all the mandated care. To exacerbate their generally thin to negative profit margin, they did not receive all the government subsidies originally promised. Like so many programs, it would appear they cannot approach solvency without tax-payer funded subsidies.

Given all this, most of the insurance co-ops have failed and even major carriers are announcing withdrawal from the market. UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest health insurance carrier, has announced it will be pulling out of 90% of its current market in 2017. Anthem seeks to buy Cigna and Aetna seeks to merge with Humana. All this results in far less competition and . . . less competition means higher premiums for the consumer.

Stay tuned to see what the market offers us during this fall’s OEP. I will be focusing more and more on my “Medicare” clients who, much to my regret, were somewhat neglected during last fall’s scramble on my part to find new policies for 150 plus under-age 65 health insurance clients. Medicare recipients will be a priority this fall during their own OEP for Medicare Advantage and Part D Prescription Drug Plans. I hope the market allows me to play an active role in assisting families in obtaining health insurance.  . . . We shall see. Predicting what is going to happen next in terms of what the general public refers to as “Obamacare” is a lot like walking into a swamp. You’re not quite certain if your next step will land in quicksand or on top of an alligator. Terra firma would be a welcome and unexpected change for the consumer and this agent / broker.

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*FEATURED ARTICLE

New York Times

Business Day

Health Insurer Hoped to Disrupt the Industry, but Struggles in State Marketplaces

By REED ABELSON JUNE 19, 2016

Oscar Health was going to be a new kind of insurance company. Started in 2012, just in time to offer plans to people buying insurance under the new federal health care law, the business promised to use technology to push less costly care and more consumer-friendly coverage.

“We’re trying to build something that’s going to turn the industry on its head,” Joshua Kushner, one of the company’s founders, said in 2014, as Oscar began to enroll its first customers.

These days, though, Oscar is more of a case study in how brutally tough it is to keep a business above water in the state marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act. And its struggles highlight a critical question about the act: Can insurance companies run a viable business in the individual market?

Oscar has attracted 135,000 customers, about half of them in New York State. And some of its efforts with technology have been successful. But for every dollar of premium Oscar collects in New York, the company is losing 15 cents. It lost $92 million in the state last year and another $39 million in the first three months of 2016.

“That’s not a sustainable position,” said Mario Schlosser, chief executive at Oscar.

Companies like Oscar were initially attracted by the potential of millions of new customers added to the individual market by the health law. But the reality has been far messier.

In an effort to attract customers, insurers put prices on their plans that have turned out to be too low to make a profit. The companies also assumed they could offer the same sort of plans as they do through employer-based coverage, including broad networks of doctors and hospitals.

But the market has turned out to be smaller than they hoped, with 12 million signed up for coverage in 2016. Fewer employers have dropped health insurance than expected, for example, keeping many healthy adults out of the individual market.

And among the remaining population, the insurers cannot pick and choose their customers. The law forces them to insure people with pre-existing conditions, no matter how expensive those conditions may be.

As a result, most insurers are still trying to develop a successful business model. Last year, only a quarter of the insurers appear to have made money selling individual policies, according to a preliminary analysis from McKinsey, the consulting firm. Giant insurers like UnitedHealth Group have stopped offering individual coverage through the public exchanges in some states. And most of the new insurance co-ops, which were founded to create more competition, have failed.

A few times a week, Oscar Health serves a catered lunch for employees. The company has attracted 135,000 customers, but it is losing money. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

The heavy losses do not necessarily mean that the individual market is ready to implode. Some insurers, including large companies like Anthem, say they remain committed to the market, and some insurers have made money.

But the turbulence is certainly greater than expected. And it may well lead many insurers to seek double-digit percentage rate increases and tighten their networks.

“There was tremendous uncertainty that even the very established companies were flummoxed by,” said Larry Levitt, an executive with the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been closely following the insurers’ progress.

Over all, insurance companies continue to make profits. The dearth of profits from the individual markets, though, show how challenging it is to make insurance affordable when it is not subsidized by the government or an employer.

The troubles in the individual market also underscore how some of the law’s provisions meant to protect the insurers have not worked as well as desired. Insurers did not receive all the payments they were due under one of the law’s provisions, and another provision, meant to even out the risk among companies to protect those that enroll sicker individuals, has been described as flawed by many health care experts. Federal officials have said they would tweak those formulas.

The companies that have fared best so far are those that have kept the tightest control over their costs, by working closely with low-cost providers or a limited group of hospitals and doctors. Many have abandoned the idea of offering the kind of access available through many employer plans. The successful companies have also avoided the very low prices found in some of the co-ops.

For most of the insurers, though, the math has just not added up, which is the case with Oscar.

In New York State, where Oscar is based, the company recently filed eye-catching requests to raise rates by a weighted average of nearly 20 percent for 2017. Regulators will make a decision in August.

“The market is over all too low in price,” Mr. Schlosser said. “We, like everybody else, have priced in a very aggressive way.”

Many of the big insurers, like Anthem, can rely on their other businesses to generate profits while they wait for this market to stabilize. Oscar does not have that luxury; it is focused on individual marketplaces. (In addition to New York, Oscar operates in California, New Jersey and Texas.)

Other new insurers that sell plans to employers or under government programs like Medicare have been a little more insulated. When Northwell Health, the system in New York previously known as North Shore-LIJ Health System, entered the insurance market, it created a new company. That company, CareConnect, has 100,000 customers, most of them individuals insured through both large and small employers.

“If we only had the individual market, we would have taken undue risk because we would not have understood that market,” said Alan J. Murray, CareConnect’s chief executive. He said the company is close to turning a profit.

Oscar says it plans to begin offering coverage to small businesses, but Mr. Schlosser was adamant that individuals will eventually be buying their own coverage, rather than relying on employers. The company is also racing to incorporate plans with smaller networks.

Bright Health, another start-up, also plans to work closely with health systems to offer consumer-friendly plans.

While Oscar has had to use another insurer’s network in New York, the company’s goal is to form partnerships with systems to create networks that specialize in managing care. The company began experimenting with these networks this year in Texas and California.

“Oscar talks about narrow networks like no one has seen one before,” said Dr. Sanjay B. Saxena, who works with insurers and health systems at the Boston Consulting Group.

Oscar has received $750 million from its investors, and Mr. Schlosser insists that the company understood how long it would take for the new insurance marketplaces to develop, calling these “very, very early days.”

Oscar points to its technological edge as a way to manage patients’ health better than the established insurers. It has created teams, including nurses, who are assigned to groups of patients and can intervene when its data flags a potentially worrisome condition like a high blood sugar level.

Promoting itself as a consumer-friendly alternative to the other insurers also has its risks. While Oscar has loyal customers, others say they are disappointed to find the insurer behaving like everyone else. Cosmin Bita, a real estate broker in New York, switched to Oscar from an insurer that had given him the runaround about whether it would pay for blood tests as part of his annual physical. Although Oscar said when he enrolled that the tests would be covered, he said, he found himself fighting with the company over whether everything was covered.

“The exact same thing happened,” Mr. Bita said.

Oscar executives said the company works hard to keep customers satisfied.

But so far, it has not proved that it has created a better model than the rest of the industry.

As Darren Walsh, a principal at Power & Walsh Insurance Advisors, said: “They haven’t invented a new mousetrap.”

http://healthandmedicareinsurance.com