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How Dental Insurance Works

Nearly half of the global population is affected by untreated oral diseases. Maintaining proper dental hygiene is essential for overall health, as the mouth serves as the primary gateway to the body. In fact, the World Health Organization has noted that conditions like gum disease and untreated cavities impact more people than cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and mental illness combined.

Regular care and preventive measures can curb these issues. Learn what dental insurance typically covers to see how it can help make important dental care more accessible.

What Dental Insurance Plans Cover: The 100/80/50 Model

Dental coverage provided by major medical health insurance usually only extends to children and emergency procedures. A comprehensive stand-alone dental plan can help ensure coverage for the majority of medically necessary oral maintenance procedures that primary health insurance may leave out.

Many dental insurance plans utilize the 100/80/50 model when it comes to coverage. This refers to the tiered coverage offered for different types of dental care:

  • 100% coverage for preventive care, such as cleanings and check-ups
  • 80% for basic procedures, like fillings
  • 50% for major procedures, including crowns and bridges

This model is designed to encourage individuals to prioritize preventive dental care, as it is fully covered by insurance. Regular check-ups can help in the early detection and treatment of dental issues, potentially saving patients from more extensive procedures in the future.

Preventive Care (100% Coverage)

Preventive care services receive full coverage, or 100% coverage. Preventive care in dental health involves services and treatments aimed at preventing the onset of dental issues or halting the progression of existing problems like cavities and gingivitis. It helps maintain dental health, prevent painful conditions, and reduce the need for more extensive treatments in the future.

Common Preventive Care Procedures

  • Regular cleanings: These are routine professional cleanings to remove plaque and tartar
  • Dental exams: These are comprehensive exams used to detect issues early on
  • X-rays: These are periodic dental X-rays to monitor oral conditions
  • Fluoride treatments: These are liquid, gel, or foam treatments that strengthen enamel and prevent decay
  • Sealants: These are thin coatings applied to the surface of teeth to protect them from decay

Basic Procedures (80% Coverage)

Basic dental services are typically covered at 80%, which means patients are responsible for paying the remaining 20% of procedure costs. Basic procedures in dental care refer to treatments that are relatively simple yet necessary to address common dental issues such as cavities and gum disease. This level of care plays a vital role in managing ongoing dental health concerns and preventing them from escalating into more serious conditions.

Common Basic Care Procedures

  • Fillings: These protect the tooth’s surface after the dentist removes the cavity
    Simple extractions: This is the removal of teeth, such as when a tooth is too damaged to repair
  • Basic restorative work: This includes bonding and other procedures to restore the appearance and function of teeth
  • Periodontal scaling: This is a deep cleaning procedure that removes plaque and tartar from beneath the gum line
  • Root canals: This treatment involves removing infected pulp from inside a tooth, cleaning, disinfecting, filling, and sealing the tooth to prevent reinfection

It should be noted that root canals are sometimes classified as a major procedure. However, in many plans, it falls under basic procedures.

Major Restorative Procedures (50% Coverage)

Major dental procedures are generally the most expensive in dental care, and dental plans following the 100/80/50 model will cover them at 50%. This means you would be responsible for the remaining 50% of costs. Major restorative procedures in dental care are complex treatments aimed at addressing serious dental health issues, including severe decay, loss of teeth, and significant structural damage to the teeth. This type of care is crucial for restoring the functionality and aesthetics of teeth.

Common Major Restorative Procedures

  • Crowns: These are custom-fitted covers for damaged or decayed teeth
  • Bridges: These combine crowns and artificial teeth to replace missing teeth
  • Dentures: These are full or partial sets of artificial teeth used to replace missing teeth and tissues
  • Implants: These are a permanent solution for missing teeth that surgically attaches an artificial tooth to the jawbone
  • Complex oral surgery: These are surgeries such as complex extractions and jaw surgeries


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Limitations of Dental Insurance Plans

Dental insurance can help make care more accessible, but it still has limitations that you should keep in mind when searching for a plan to meet your needs.

  • Annual maximums: Dental insurance plans often have annual maximums, limiting the total amount the plan will cover within a year.
  • Waiting periods: Many plans impose waiting periods for certain procedures, forcing policyholders to wait a specified time before they can use their benefits for those treatments.
  • Coverage restrictions: Plans may restrict coverage to the least expensive alternative treatment (LEAT), not covering more advanced or expensive treatments even if they are recommended by the dentist.
  • Pre-existing conditions: Coverage for pre-existing conditions can be limited, with some plans not covering treatments for dental issues present before the policy started.
  • Limited cosmetic procedures: Cosmetic procedures are often not covered or have very limited coverage, which can be a significant drawback for individuals seeking aesthetic improvements to their smiles. This includes teeth whitening and braces.

However, dental insurance can ultimately better encourage you to maintain your oral health through regular cleanings and checkups, as well as provide assistance should you need more intensive dental care.


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Dental Plan Options

Stand-alone dental plans operate similarly to conventional health insurance. For example, some employers offer dental coverage through a “group benefit” program accessible to eligible employees. But there are also private dental insurance options. Individuals opting for private coverage need to select their desired coverage level, plan type, and associated pricing breakdown.

Dental Plan Categories

Dental plan categories refer to how payments work, such as when patients pay, how they are reimbursed, and how coverage costs and limits are set.

  • Direct Reimbursement Programs: Direct reimbursement programs reimburse policyholders for the dental care they receive. Under this system, you pay for your dental services upfront and are then reimbursed by your insurance provider based on the services rendered.
  • UCR Program: UCR stands for “Usual, Customary, and Reasonable” programs, and they cover services based on a price limit defined as being “usual, customary, and reasonable.” These limits are often determined based on factors like the average costs of services in a specific geographic area.
  • Table or Schedule of Allowance Programs: These programs have a predefined list or schedule stipulating the maximum amount an insurance company will pay for each dental procedure. This can help you plan expenses beforehand. However, it should be noted that if your dental provider charges more than the maximum, you would be responsible for paying the excess out of pocket.
  • Capitation Programs: Capitation programs pay dentists a fixed amount per enrolled patient over a specified period, regardless of the services rendered. This encourages providers to focus on preventive care to reduce the need for more expensive treatments later on.

Dental Plan Types

Dental plan types refer to how provider networks, care coordination, and benefits work together to provide coverage for the policyholder.

Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) Plans

In a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) dental plan, policyholders receive better rates if they seek care from a select network of dentists. However, most PPO plans also provide some coverage for out-of-network dental care, though it will cost more.


  • Flexibility: PPO plans allow you to visit any dentist, although visiting in-network dentists will result in lower out-of-pocket costs.
  • Wide network: These plans often come with a substantial network of providers, giving you a variety of choices for your dental care.
  • Partial coverage for out-of-network care: Unlike some other plans, PPOs often provide partial coverage even for out-of-network providers, which can be beneficial if your preferred specialist is not within network.


  • Higher costs for out-of-network care: While you can see any dentist, choosing an out-of-network provider will generally be more costly.
  • Potential for high premiums: PPO plans can come with higher monthly premiums compared to other types of plans, such as DHMOs.
  • Deductibles: These plans often involve deductibles, meaning you’ll need to pay a certain amount out of pocket before your insurance coverage kicks in.

Dental Health Maintenance Organization (DHMO) Plans

Dental Health Maintenance Organization (DHMO) plans involve choosing a primary care dentist and getting referrals from them to visit specialists. Out-of-network care is much more limited with these types of plans, but premiums also tend to be lower than PPO plans.


  • Lower premiums: DHMO plans typically offer lower monthly premiums compared to PPO plans, making them more budget-friendly.
  • No or low deductibles: These plans often have no deductibles or very low deductibles, reducing your out-of-pocket expenses.
  • No claim forms: Since services are obtained within a network, there are no claim forms to fill out, simplifying the process.


  • Limited network: DHMO plans restrict you to a network of dentists, limiting your choices for dental care providers.
  • Primary care dentist: You need to select a primary care dentist and get referrals from them to see specialists, which can sometimes create delays in obtaining necessary treatment.
  • Fewer benefits for out-of-network services: If you choose to see an out-of-network dentist, you might receive little to no coverage, resulting in higher out-of-pocket costs.

Discount or Referral Dental Plans

Discount or referral dental plans are not actually insurance plans, but they are fairly common options for those seeking care. Instead, these plans provide discounts on dental services from a network of participating dentists.


  • Affordability: These plans are generally more affordable than traditional dental insurance, with lower upfront costs.
  • No waiting periods: Unlike many insurance plans, discount plans often have no waiting periods, allowing you to use your benefits immediately.
  • No maximums: There are no annual maximums, meaning you can use the discounts as much as you need throughout the year.


  • Limited network: These plans usually have a network of dentists you must use to receive the discounts, limiting your options.
  • Out-of-pocket payments: You will need to pay for services at the time of your appointment; the plan only provides a discount on the services rendered.
  • Not insurance: These plans are not insurance, meaning they don’t provide the level of coverage a dental insurance plan would offer, and aren’t suitable for individuals expecting a high number of dental services or complex treatments.

How Much Does Dental Insurance Cost?

The average cost of dental insurance can vary substantially based on various factors including your geographical location, the extent of coverage you opt for, and the insurance provider. On average, individuals might expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $50 per month for a dental insurance policy, though family plans and plans with more extensive coverage will generally cost more.

Factors that generally influence how much a dental plan costs include:

  • Geographical location: Different regions have varying costs for dental procedures, affecting the premiums.
  • Extent of coverage: Plans offering extensive coverage including major procedures will be pricier compared to more basic plans.
  • Age and health status: Older individuals and those with pre-existing conditions might face higher premiums.
  • Group plans: Being part of a group plan, like those offered by employers, can sometimes offer reduced costs compared to individual plans.
  • Deductibles and maximums: Plans with higher deductibles and lower annual maximums may offer lower monthly premiums but could result in higher out-of-pocket costs in the long run. It’s essential to consider how these elements interact to influence the total cost of insurance.


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What to Consider When Shopping for Dental Insurance

When you’re ready to look for a dental plan that can help protect you and your family’s oral health, be sure to keep the following in mind:

  • Your individual needs: Assess your individual or family’s immediate and near-future needs by considering the kind of dental services you anticipate getting. This will ensure your chosen plan accommodates these services.
  • Budget: Establish a reasonable budget by considering potential monthly premiums, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs to find a plan that aligns with what you can comfortably afford.
  • Research: Dedicate time to research and compare various plans, considering the range of services covered and the plan’s overall reputation for customer satisfaction.

Work with a trusted insurance agent or broker to help answer any questions you may have so that you can make an informed decision and select a plan that aligns with both your dental needs and budget.


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Dental Coverage for Medicare Beneficiaries

Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) has limited coverage for dental care, which does not cover routine dental services like cleanings and examinations. However, Medicare Advantage Plans, which are offered by private insurance companies, often provide varying levels of dental benefits. These can range from basic services like cleanings, exams, and X-rays to more extensive procedures such as fillings, extractions, and even some major services like crowns, bridges, and oral surgeries.

When seeking dental benefits with your Medicare Advantage Plan, keep the following in mind:

  • The specifics of dental coverage differ among plans, with some offering benefits for restorative and major services, while others focus on preventive care.
  • Many Medicare Advantage plans operate within specific dental networks, which can affect coverage and costs if services are sought outside these networks.
  • Waiting periods for certain procedures and additional costs like monthly premiums, deductibles, or co-pays might apply.

In general, it’s essential for beneficiaries to carefully review any Medicare Advantage Plan’s details to understand the dental coverage provided and any associated limitations or costs.


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Putting It All Together

Dental insurance can help individuals manage the often substantial costs associated with dental care, including routine check-ups, cleanings, and necessary procedures. Without insurance, these expenses can be prohibitively expensive, potentially leading to delayed or skipped dental treatments. Having dental insurance ensures timely access to preventive and necessary care, promoting overall oral health and well-being.

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