Offer preventive dental coverage, save big bucks?

Results from a recent study examining the impact of dental care on overall health costs got me thinking about a sometimes-overlooked aspect of healthcare: dental insurance and oral health. The study, which was conducted by Cigna, found that patients who were treated for gum disease and then received regular maintenance care thereafter had lower medical costs than patients who did not receive regular maintenance care.

On average, Cigna found that medical costs were $2,483 per year lower, or 23 percent less, for patients with diabetes who had proper gum disease treatment. In addition, a report released in 2009 suggests that treating gum disease in patients who have diabetes with procedures such as cleanings and periodontal scaling is linked to 10 to 12 percent lower medical costs per month. That's not too shabby.

"The link between periodontal disease and diabetes has been firmly established and the association is a concern," said Dr. Marjorie Jeffcoat, professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. "Periodontal disease can place individuals with diabetes at greater risk for diabetic complications, including mortality from cardiovascular disease and diabetic nephropathy."

Cigna says that by promoting preventive care, dental benefits can help lead to better overall health, increased workforce productivity and fewer treatment claims over time, which can decrease overall costs. Poor oral health has been linked to such systemic problems as heart disease, stroke and preterm low-birthweight infants. It also may affect people's daily lives by interfering with eating, sleeping, working and learning--all factors that dramatically impact health and thus incur steep costs.

In fact, every dollar spent on preventive dental care, according to Cigna, can save between $8 and $50 in restorative and emergency treatments. 

Dovetail these results with CDC estimates that up to 45 million people in the United States don't have dental coverage (and only about 3 out of 10 people with directly-purchased insurance have dental coverage), and I think insurers should see a formula for success here. It seems that not only does offering dental plans provide a great potential revenue source, but it also helps lower other costs that insurers would otherwise incur.

Health insurers that offer dental plans include Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealth, Humana and most Blue Cross Blue Shield Association plans. So why is there still some 45 million people without dental plans? Maybe this is an area where insurers should focus their efforts and boost their bottom lines while reducing strain from the healthcare system and cutting some costs.

They might also review their dental offerings to ensure they reward preventive care. Cigna has done just that, perhaps in reaction to its own study's results, by adding new features to its dental product suite that reward people for getting preventive dental care and also provide employers more plan design flexibility, while controlling benefit costs. One plan, for example, doesn't apply costs for preventive and diagnostic dental services to maximums or deductibles. Another plan rewards individuals for receiving preventive care by qualifying them for increased coverage in the following plan year.

I hope more insurers follow Cigna's lead. - Dina