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Dental Benefits: Good for Employees, Good for Your Bottom Line

Although dental benefits are now common in the benefits mix of many employers, half of the U.S. population still lacks dental coverage. This becomes a serious healthcare issue when you consider that poor oral health can have serious physical and financial consequences, affecting an employee's productivity, health and well-being, not to mention your company's bottom line.

People with dental insurance visit dentists almost twice as often as people without coverage, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Encouraging your employees to seek regular, preventive care by offering a dental benefits program will help them keep a watch on their oral health now, possibly avoiding the need for more costly restorative procedures later. The American Dental Hygienists' Association estimates that every $1 spent on prevention in oral health care saves $8 to $50 on restorative and emergency procedures.

When employees maintain a higher level of oral health, their employers experience cost and productivity benefits. Treating and preventing dental problems before they become expensive helps keep insurance premiums low. And it can save employers from the costs of work time lost due to dental illnesses.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General's report on oral health, it is estimated that working Americans lose about 164 million hours annually to dental disease or dental visits. Children lose an additional 51 million hours of school to dental-related illness, causing more lost work time as parents tend to their children's needs.

With their emphasis on regular, ongoing preventive care and early detection, dental benefits can significantly reduce the possibility of dental emergencies for employees and their families, keeping people on the job rather than in the dentist's chair. Preventive dental care, early detection and treatment also save the United States $4 billion annually, according to a study published in Public Health Reports.

Meeting Employee Expectations

What do employees have to say about dental benefits? The answer is clear: employees value and, in today's business climate, often expect that employers will offer them dental benefits programs.

Dental coverage is among the most popular of all benefits in compensation packages, according to a 1999 LIMRA International Study, second only to medical insurance. Furthermore, a nationwide poll conducted by Taylor Nelson/Sofres found that more than three-quarters of Americans considered it important to have dental insurance provided by a prospective employer.

As more and more companies realize the role dental benefits play in the overall benefits mix, a growing number of companies are adding dental as a tool for recruiting and retaining employees. The total dental benefits market is expected to increase from 175 million people covered in 2002, to 194 million people by 2005, according to a report by the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP) and Delta Dental Plans Association. The same report also showed that the penetration of dental benefits to population should increase from 61 percent today, to almost 66 percent in 2005.

Beyond the Bottom Line

Beyond bottom line considerations like employee productivity, it's also important to consider the role of oral health in the overall health of your employees. By doing so, you can help to encourage workers to treat and prevent dental problems before they become more serious and expensive to treat.

Dental health affects some of the body's most essential functions, including speaking, chewing and swallowing. Studies have indicated relationships between periodontal diseases and systemic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, diabetes and pregnancy complications. Research also confirms that regular visits to the dentist may help in the early detection of serious physical illnesses, such as diabetes.

A recent national poll conducted by the nonprofit group Research America, found that an overwhelming 85 percent of Americans indicated their oral health was very important to their overall health. The same poll found that lack of insurance is the primary reason people hadn't visited the dentist in the past 12 months.

Employee education is another important part of promoting oral health. Providing access to information on common oral health issues such as selecting a dentist; overcoming dental phobias; and encouraging children to brush and floss; can help your employees make smart dental choices.

Americans' dental health has improved dramatically in the past three decades, and employee-sponsored dental insurance has played a large part in this positive trend. In 1970, only six percent of all Americans had private dental insurance. Today, nearly half of the U.S. population is covered by employer-sponsored dental insurance.

As the number of Americans covered by dental insurance has increased, so has the rate at which people visit the dentist for periodic checkups. And while visits to the dentist are increasing, cavities and extractions are declining. From 1979 to 1990, regular checkups increased by 70 percent, while more expensive procedures like amalgam fillings declined by 27 percent. Also, because of the greater access to dental care, Americans are keeping their teeth longer. In 1960, Americans over age 65 had only an average of seven original teeth. Today, this group retains an average of 24 original teeth.

How You Can Help

How can you motivate employees to maintain good oral health? Shop wisely for a dental benefits program that covers preventive services with minimal or no out-of-pocket costs to employees, and encourage semi-annual checkups and cleanings. Regularly review your dental program to make sure it meets the needs of your employees and places an emphasis on prevention. If a fully or partially employer-funded dental benefits program is not an option, consider offering a voluntary plan where employees pay their own premiums but with the advantage of lower-cost group rates.

As compared to a major medical procedure, the costs of dental problems might seem minor. Nevertheless, they can become substantial in terms of their physical and financial costs to your employees.

Because people with dental insurance visit their dentists more often, they are more likely to stave off serious oral health problems that are expensive and time-consuming to treat. Dentists have always recommended preventive care, and dental insurance is set up to emphasize prevention and early detection. At a time when increases in medical premiums are squeezing other benefits, this cost-control-by-prevention model is more important than ever before.

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