Dental insurance isn't the end-all-be-all—these other options mean you never have to pay full price at the dentist's office.

By Meena Thiruvengadam
March 05, 2021
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Between waiting periods, coverage maximums, and flat-out exclusions, there's a lot that can fall between the cracks of dental insurance plans. So much, in fact, that plenty of folks are opting out of dental insurance entirely. Luckily, there are available dental discount plans and other ways to access affordable dental care for all—even without insurance.

California-based Ebrahimian Integrative Dentistry, for example, hasn't participated in dental insurance networks for more than two decades. 

"Dental insurance is a misnomer...it's a rebate at best," Tina Ebrahimian tells Health. Ebrahimian manages the office where her husband has been practicing dentistry for more than 40 years. 

"If your employer is paying for it, great," Ebrahimian says. For anyone paying their own premiums, however, she recommends reading the fine print closely. "In the end, what you get reimbursed for has everything to do with the bottom line," Ebrahimian adds, noting that amalgam fillings—which her practice stopped using decades ago—are still the standard under many dental insurance plans.

Dental insurance plans generally cap benefits at between $1,500 and $2,000. They tend not to cover adult orthodontia or the implants that may be required to replace teeth that have cracked (under the pressure of the pandemic, perhaps?). But none of this means you have to pay full price. 

In-house payment plans and discounts

Dentists know exactly how expensive dental work can get and how little of that might be covered by insurance—so look for dentists who offer discounts for self-paying customers or in-house payment plans without interest. 

Dori Zinn, a Florida-based writer and president of Blossomers Media, said she and her husband searched fruitlessly for a dental insurance plan that would meet their family's needs but ultimately decided against it. "We have our own small business, and while there are some options for self-employed workers, we haven't found dental plans that provide much value to us," Zinn said. 

The family opted instead for a local dentistry practice that created its own discount program for uninsured patients. "While relatively inexpensive, dental insurance doesn't cover quite a bit," she said. 

Dental discount & membership plans

If you're looking for an alternative that isn't linked to a specific dental office, consider a dental discount or membership plan. These plans charge an annual fee—typically around $100—instead of monthly premiums like traditional insurance plans. They offer discounts on dental services as long as you select a participating provider. Trusted options include Aetna Access discount dental card, Humana's dental savings plus plan, and Cigna's dental savings program. DentalPlans also has a comprehensive listing of options you can peruse.

These types of plans won't make you wait to get care, but they also don't reimburse dentists after the fact as dental insurance does. Patients with dental discount and membership plans should be prepared to pay for services when they receive them. 

Community clinics, dental schools & more

Not having a dental discount or membership plan still doesn't mean you have to pay full price. Several communities and dental schools across the US offer free and discounted dental care, including community dental clinics that offer a sliding payment scale. West Virginia, for example, hosts mobile dental clinics in rural areas where dental care can be scarce. 

In the midwest, the University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry provides discounts on services ranging from routine annual exams to expensive implants that are rarely covered by insurance plans. All procedures are supervised by faculty members. The Ohio State College of Dentistry, University of Iowa College of Dentistry, and the School of Dentistry at the University of Minnesota offer similar services. 

And while they're not a dental discount or membership plan, Wally Health aims to bridge the gap between dental visits—for about $10 a month. Wally provides remote access to a team of hygienists and regular deliveries of toothpaste and mouthwash. 

"We see ourselves as being complementary to seeing a dentist in person," said Wally's Chelsea Patel. "This is about making sure you're doing everything you can in between visits." 

To find affordable services in your area, you can reference the American Dental Association's state-based listing of resources well as the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)'s database of local dental schools and other accredited dental programs.