Money

5 things you need to know to get cut-price dental

Most dental care is not funded by Medicare in Australia - but there are ways to keep costs low, as Nicole explains in this article.

Slash your dental expenses in half with these smart and savvy tips to keep your pearly whites in great shape. With 3 in 10 Australians estimated to have moderate to severe gum disease (which causes tooth loss - eep!) it's important to get your teeth into these 5 tips.

By Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon  

We all consider keeping our teeth intact and in good condition to be important… common wisdom is that the longer you help them stay healthy and – well – in your head, the better you look.

And probably, the younger you look.  

But in this article, we are not so much concerned about the overall aesthetics, but the ultimate economics. Or probably more accurately: the economics of the aesthetics.

More Australians than ever are cashing in their superannuation to pay for dental treatment.

Australian Tax Office statistics show more than 13,000 people successfully applying for early access to $313 million in retirement savings to fix their teeth - now we aren't judgey here at Citro, but paying for healthcare isn't a great way to make superannuation money deliver you an income after you reach preservation age.

More Australians than ever are accessing superannuation to pay for dental treatment.

So, what are the ways to work the Medicare, public dental and private health system to pay as little as possible for all your dental treatment?

Here are 5 things you need to know.

1. It is possible to get dental treatment free – but do you want to?

In Australia you usually need to pay for the dentist, however under certain circumstances, you don’t. And as you get older, you might meet those circumstances.

There are public dental services for which you need a Health Care Card, Centrelink Pensioner Concession Card or Commonwealth Seniors Health Card (read more on Citro’s 12 benefits for older Australians).

A range of more routine services are provided by facilities including mobile dental clinics and community dental clinics (and school dental clinics). 

You might also qualify for emergency dental services or for referrals to specialist services like orthodontics in a hospital.

But access to public dental treatment varies widely depending on where you live and the downside may be hugely long waits, even for ‘emergency’ dental services. And ones made interminable by tooth pain.

The federal government’s healthdirect.gov.au website just pointedly says: “You may have to wait up to a year or more to see a public dentist.”

Your state’s health department website should tell the appointment story… or at least partially.

2. Dental cover through private health costs little ‘extra’

Beyond the public system, costs vary widely. This is largely because other dental clinics are private. It may come as a surprise that, unlike doctors, there are no standard fees for dentists.

Meanwhile, when you buy comprehensive private health insurance, dental cover is just one of the many health services included in your extras or ancillary cover.

When you consider that, the component for your teeth is comparatively tiny. Indeed, it often represents just $5 a week of your premiums.

And the pay back is potentially massive.

The latest APRA figures for private health fund dental services show more than 13 million treatments in the year to December 2023. This is up 49%t on 10 years ago.

What is the cost of these treatments? Together, health funds paid benefits of $861million and fees were almost exactly double that: $1.64billion.

In 2020-21, the last relevant oral health report from the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare said individuals spent $253 on dental services on average over the 12-month period, not including premiums paid for private health insurance.

3. Health fund savings are not linear – they’re treatment by treatment

You can essentially expect health funds to cover more at the lower end of the dental expense spectrum and less as you move up it.

So, let’s start with the small – where funds are generous – treatments.

There is almost always a huge saving on general tooth maintenance. 

In fact, what are called no-gap private health policies will often fully cover two cleans and checks for every member on the policy, an x-ray and potentially even more, annually.

They may do this through specified local dentists or, if you are in a capital city, via a centralised dental centre with health fund dentists. (By the way, my experience with these has always been good.)

However, people in regional and remote areas may simply be able to attend and be covered for any local dentist – so it’s their choice.

The base saving could be circa $400 a year per person so, depending on how many people are covered by your policy, this could effectively cancel the cost of one or several more monthly premiums.

How does it work, then, with more expensive dental procedures?

Here, your experience will vary significantly with your fund.

Be aware that some operate on a loyalty basis: the longer you have been with a fund, the higher the payouts for which you will qualify. This is particularly true of orthodontal procedures (although you may be less likely to need these).

Though I am a huge advocate of regularly switching health funds to get the better, more beneficial policy, just watch that you don’t lose accrued loyalty benefits for the really big procedures… or that, if you do, your new cover would compensate you for it.

You can compare policies and procedures at the excellent and independent privatehealth.gov.au.    

The ‘private’ bottom line with dental is that, over time, your ultimate payouts could be far greater than the premiums.

4. Would self-insuring for dental work?

But if all this has you wondering whether it would be better to diligently stash your premiums away for those inevitable dental requirements, the answer is: Maybe.

You could even get lucky and not incur much ‘canine’ cost.

But private health insurance is far from just about your teeth, as suggested by the fact it falls into the ancillaries component. Private health should – overarchingly – be about getting prompt and appropriate hospital treatment when you really need it (like I did when I had breast cancer). 

And personally covering the cost of that could mount to the equivalent of a small house.

Don’t forget that if you don’t have at least hospital cover but earn over $93,000 a year as a single or $186,000 as a couple (2023-24), you will pay the Medicare Levy Surcharge, a tax penalty of up to 1.5% of your income. (To exempt you from the surcharge, your excess needs to be less than $750 or $1500, respectively.)

But here’s the thing: by taking out ancillary or extras cover, too, you might be able to cover the cost of the hospital cover itself. Even free cleans and checks alone cancel a large part of the cost.

So, is it more economical to keep teeth in your head or extract them?

5. Teeth – in or out?

This will depend on how much keeping them will ultimately cost you, based on a sensible estimate of how long you might.

Talk to your dentist about the predicted treatment and cost over that time, and then ask your health fund how much of this would be covered.

You need to weigh this against the – hopefully – one-off cost of an extraction and probably an implant or (less costly) dentures… and the out-of-pocket there.   

This Citro story has a useful dental prices guide.

As it emphasises, and as with all aspects of your health, looking after your teeth is the  real key to keeping dental costs under control.

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