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When You Don't Have Dental Insurance

These 5 tips for making treatment affordable will keep your smile bright

By Heather Larson | June 4, 2014

As you age, your teeth become more susceptible to fracture and have a higher risk for decay. Over time, old fillings weaken your teeth. This isn’t a good time to put your dental health on hold, says Dr. Robert S. Minch, a private-practice dentist in Lutherville, Md.
 
And yet, many folks in their 50s and 60s don’t have dental insurance either because they’re self-employed, work part-time or have retired. Medicare doesn’t cover most dental care, such as cleanings, fillings, tooth extractions, dentures, dental plates or other dental devices; Part A only pays for certain dental services you may get when hospitalized.

(MORE: How to Keep Your Teeth for Life)
 
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) makes dental insurance for children one of the required 10 essential health benefits, but there is no dental insurance requirement for adults, says Don Silver, author of The Best ObamaCare Guide. So no help there.
 
Although all this sounds grim for the uninsured, you still have a variety of options for getting good dental care at a reasonable cost:
 
1. Look for a dentist with a payment plan. Many dentists offer a payment arrangement that replaces insurance. You pay an annual fee, usually over time, with no financing and no interest.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Negotiate Lower Doctor Bills)

Dr. John Addison, a private-practice dentist in Miami, Fla., offers his patients affordable dentistry through a company called Quality Dental Plans (QDP).
 
“QDP cuts out the middle man [insurance] and creates savings for patients directly and immediately,” says Addison. “There are no minimums, no co-pays, no procedures that aren’t covered and no denials of coverage.”
 
For an annual individual membership fee of $299, Addison’s patients receive the following free each year: two cleanings, one comprehensive exam, one set of X-rays, a teeth whitening and 20 percent off most other dental services.
 
Great Expressions Dental Centers, with more than 200 locations in nine states, has its own payment plan for the uninsured. An individual pays $59 a year and receives one free yearly exam and one set of X-rays plus 35 percent off dental care. You can use the coverage as often as needed with no limits.
 
If you can’t find a local dentist with an affordable-payment plan, search for pro-bono services.
 
2. Participate in a charity event. Members of the national nonprofit organization, the Association of Dental Support Organizations (ADSO), like Great Expressions Dental Centers, are committed to helping the communities they work in by organizing free service days. Although ADSO members operate for-profit businesses, they also donate their time to help the underinsured in their locale.
 
“For example, Pacific Dental Services’ Smile Generation annual ‘Serve Day’ generates more than $1.5 million worth of pro-bono dentistry,” says Quinn Dufurrena, executive director of ADSO in Denver, Colo.
 
Collectively, ADSO members offer millions of dollars in free care annually to patients nationwide and abroad, through activities ranging from mobile dental clinics to free in-office weekend visits. All 30 ADSO members participate in volunteer work. For example: Heartland’s Free Dentistry Day enables dentists to provide free care to more than 3,000 patients in need annually, says Dufurrena.
 
You can also look for events offering free or low-cost dentistry at Dentistry From the Heart, America’s Dentists Care Foundation or on your state’s dental association website.
 
3. Go to a dental school. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research says dental schools offer good quality, reduced cost dental treatment. Most have clinics where students gain experience treating patients while knowledgeable, licensed dentists supervise their work. You’ll find a listing of accredited dental education programs on the American Dental Association website.
 
Minch, who teaches at a dental school, says to keep in mind that when students have every phase of their work checked by a supervising dentist, you’ll spend longer in the dental chair than if you visited a private practice dentist or a retail group clinic.
 
4. Chain clinics may not be the answer. Retail dental outlets like Bright Now Dental, Coast Dental, Gentle Dental and others on first glance may appear to be a good choice for those without dental insurance. They often wave banners or have large window signs proclaiming free cleanings and exams. Addison, who worked at Coast Dental for almost two years, says the opposite is true.
 
“These types of retail clinics offer low-cost services for people with insurance,” says Addison. “The advantage they offer is they can work with multiple insurance plans, whereas some dentists can only take patients who are insured by a few major carriers.”

(MORE: Why Oral Health Is the Key to Total Health)
 
5. Take preventative measures. To cut down on the number of dental visits you need, Dr. Joseph Banker, a cosmetic dentist in Westfield, N.J., suggests augmenting your mouth care routine.
 
Regular brushing (at least twice a day for two to three minutes) and flossing at least once a day can keep plaque and bacteria in check, plus decrease gum inflammation and protect teeth from decay. By using a water flosser, you streamline that task.

An electric toothbrush gives you a better cleaning, and when brushed along the tongue as well as the teeth, it keeps bacteria from accumulating on the tongue, Banker says.

Rinsing your mouth with an antibacterial mouthwash in the morning, he says, and a fluoridated one in the evening also helps prevent cavities.
 
Dental care for those passing through midlife, says Addison, is every bit as crucial as it was in childhood, because teeth are vulnerable at both those stages of life.