Getting a fix without dental insurance

Marketplace Staff Sep 23, 2010

Getting a fix without dental insurance

Marketplace Staff Sep 23, 2010


Tess Vigeland: While we’re on the subject of all the weird and wonderful ways technology can save you money, how ’bout bidding for dental care? Or is that like all-you-can-eat sushi — not something for which you want to take the cheap route?

Vanessa Romo tells us about an online service that can chop the price of having healthy choppers.

Vanessa Romo: Lately, my teeth have been feeling less than minty-fresh. In fact, the last time I had my teeth cleaned or felt the stiff embrace of a dentist’s chair was over two years ago. The week before I was laid off and lost my dental insurance.

Actually lots of people are running around with furry teeth. A new poll by Gallup-Healthways found that roughly one-third of Americans haven’t been to the dentist in a year.

But when a filling in one of my molars started crumbling, I didn’t have much choice. So I went looking for a dental bargain on the Internet. I landed at, a website that lets users bid on health care services. The same way you can bid on airline tickets. Think of it as the…

Commercial: Priceline negotiator!

…of the health care industry.

Of course I had some doubts. Certainly, bidding on an airline seat is no big deal. What’s the worst that can happen? A middle seat near the bathroom? But low balling the person who will be wielding a drill in my mouth?

The site does list every doctor’s credentials and there’s a feedback forum where patients can write about their experiences. Which, to be honest, is more research than I did when choosing my previous dentist.

So I give it a try.

After culling through 101 dentists within a 10-mile radius, I zero in on one with glowing reviews: Dr. Tulay Kent. Her fee is $110 but I bid $70. My offer is rejected. After two more attempts, Dr. Tulay Kent finally accepts a bid of $85.

Dr. Tulay Kent: I’m Tulay Kent. Welcome to our practice.

Dr. Kent can offer this big discount because I’m paying cash. No paper work for her office or waiting around for a check from an insurance company.

Kent: That’s what if feels like. You doing O.K., over there?

Romo: Mmm-hmm..

The office was clean. She used modern equipment, a friendly staff. And the care I got didn’t feel cut rate. But did I just get lucky?

Linda Blumberg is a health economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. She says you take a real risk when you go on sites like this. Her biggest concern is that…

Linda Blumberg: There’s no information on there in terms of discriminating quality. It’s done with the information that the provider has decided to put up.

Any doctor with a license can be listed for just $50. Beyond that there’s no screening method. Blumberg also says if your mouth is really a mess, dental insurance make more sense.

But that’s not necessarily true. It turns out, most dental insurance policies only cover up to $1,000 a year, and that’s after paying a few hundred dollars in annual fees. Even premium policies only pay for half the cost of fillings, root canals or any type of oral surgery. So another option might be to negotiate a “bundle” price with a dentist.

Which is exaclty what I found myself doing just a week after my visit to Dr Kent. She found a bunch of other dental work I desperately need.

Kent: You already had a root canal done, so for that reason, I sequenced this crown as the first thing. And then the second is a night guard. Once we do that, I recommend three fillings for you.

All in all, about $1,600 worth of work, which is way beyond my budget. Unless, I start the bidding at $50?

For Marketplace Money, I’m Vanessa Romo.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.