Are You Passing Up On Free Dental Cleanings?

The dentist office is a good place to reflect on just how fast time flies. That’s because for most people, a trip to the dentist means another six months has flown by. In between awkwardly talking to our hygienist about the weather with our mouth half-open, we strategically throw in the, “I can’t believe it’s already been 6 months”. It’s a nice effort to mix up the small talk.

If you are missing out on these appointments, you are missing out on one of life’s natural clocks. You only get about 150 of these cleaning experiences per lifetime. Make them count.

Max relaxing at the dentist this week, 2020 pandemic edition

If you have dental insurance, skipping out on these visits is likely leaving some serious money on the table. That’s because a lot of dental plans cover cleanings at 100%.

It is easy to let our busy lives get in the way of these preventative preventive cleanings. Even I got behind on my dental visits in 2017 and part of 2018. After regularly seeing the same dentist for 8 years down South, I used our move to a new state and a new job as my excuse to skip out on hundreds of dollars of free services.

Here we are, back at yet another interaction of healthcare and personal finance.

Preventive Cleanings

Traditionally, the recommendation has been to visit your dentist every six months for a teeth cleaning. This cleaning procedure is sometimes called prophylaxis. I always thought a six-month interval was the standard. The Delta Dental website takes a more tailored approach to establishing an interval.

Those at higher risk for cavities or gum disease, or are in active dental treatment, may require recall intervals as short as three months.

Those at lower risk may just go once a year, or even less frequently depending on their individual oral conditions and health history.  

How often should I visit the dentist?

Although the source of this information is an insurance company, the thought process seems reasonable to me. My dentist has outlined on numerous occasions that a lot of this stuff is just plain genetics.

So, for someone like Mrs. Max OOP who has solid dental genes, fewer trips to the dentist might make more sense. It might even be worth booting her off the dental insurance completely to save over $300 each year. Don’t worry, we let her back on the insurance in 2020.

But for someone like Max who has a long family history of dental issues, it is prudent to stay up on things. Thankfully, I still have all 28 of my original teeth and no major issues. But my 2017 ‘gap year’ from the dentist most definitely caused some money to be pulled out of my pocket.

Max Heads To The Dentist Again

I finally established a dentist here in New England back in December. This first visit was a comprehensive oral evaluation followed by a cleaning. A few issues came up at that December appointment that I needed to get taken care of. I had a few cavities filled shortly after that visit.

Overall, I have been blown away by both the customer service and clinical care provided by my new dentist’s office. In fact, after this blog post, I think I will go out of my way to write them a review.

This week, I had my first six-month checkup since establishing care here. It was essentially just a cleaning.

I always take the first appointment of the day for these types of things to prevent unnecessary delays. So it was scheduled for 8:30 am. Since the office is right down the street from my work, I rode my bike down at about 8:25 am. After a few COVID-19 screening questions and a quick temperature check, my body was in the chair by about 8:38 am. I was required to wear a mask until the cleaning started, which is kind of odd if you ask me.

My (extremely) thorough cleaning included the following:

  • Removing tartar/plaque with a scaler
  • Polishing my teeth with “gritty” toothpaste called pumice
  • Professional flossing
  • A few rinses

I had X-rays back in December so I didn’t need those. I also got an additional service approved ahead of time by my dental insurance:

  • Fluoride treatment – I think this was approved since I am considered a ‘high risk’ patient

I was back at my office by 9:30 am for a meeting.

How Much Did All This Cost?

The retail price for my prophylaxis cleaning was $108. Much cheaper than our cat’s dental cleaning, but they didn’t need to knock me out with anesthesia either. This is generally represented by CDT code D1110 (prophylaxis – adult).

The special fluoride treatment ran another $44. This service is represented by CDT code D1206 (topical application of fluoride varnish).

So my total out the door price for both services came in at $152.

$108 (teeth cleaning) + $44 (fluoride application) = $152

I decided to check in and see how the market price looks for this type of thing. Googling several estimates for this same service suggests the average price is anywhere from $75 – $200. One problem I was noticing during this exercise was many of these estimates do not seem to have a source or survey. They don’t spell out exactly what this price represents and if it includes other services. The best study I could find in a reasonable amount of time was where the Academy of Dental CPAs partnered with the trade publication Dental Economics to create the 2016 annual fee survey.

They surveyed over 600 dental practitioners and found the average cleaning cost (D1110) was between $90 and $120. In my market/region, the average fee at the 50th percentile is $110. The 90th percentile comes in at $122. Inflation has been in check for the last several years, so I think these numbers are still a great baseline. At $108, my dentist appears to be right in line with market pricing.

Max Will Pay $0.00 Out-Of-Pocket

A lot of employer-subsidized dental insurance plans pay teeth cleanings in full since they are preventive in nature. I am lucky enough to work for one of those employers. My dental insurance will cover this visit in full with no out-of-pocket cost to me. It doesn’t even hit my $50.00 deductible.

Here is a summary of how my preventive benefits look:

Here is a look at my actual claim; check out that turn around time on payment!

My insurance gets an $8.00 discount on the retail price, I pay nothing out-of-pocket

Final Thoughts

After taking a gap year in 2017, Max is back on schedule with dental cleanings. I probably have about 90 visits to the dentist left in my lifetime. I plan to make them count. Not adjusting for inflation, about $9,700 will be exchanged in an effort to keep my teeth clean for the next 45 years.

$108 (per cleaning visit) X 90 (remaining life-time visits) = $9,720

I happen to think the pricing above is very reasonable considering the service being provided. Someone is reaching into your mouth for 20-30 minutes (or more) to clean the areas you can’t get to. This is “real work”, as I like to call it. I know people that would spend more than this shoving a single meal into their mouth. Insurance aside, I would be willing to pay for this in cash for the level of service received here.

If you are paying for dental insurance and these free preventive cleanings come as part of the package, I don’t know why you wouldn’t take advantage of them. Don’t make the same mistake Max did in 2017.

Have you had your teeth cleaned yet in 2020? How much did you pay?


4 Responses

  1. David says:

    Always fun to find a new dentist after a move. When we moved from Seattle to D.C., I took too long and by the time I got it, I had some dental caries that probably could have been prevented by seeing the dentist sooner for a good cleaning.

    • Max OOP says:

      I feel like large employers (or at least hospitals) could consider hiring a dentist and handle it in house and cut out the middle man. Would make my life easier : )

      Let me know how much they are running down there in DC.


  2. David says:

    The last cleaning I had was submitted at $328 and negotiated down to $223, of which 100% was covered. They don’t cover fluoride treatments but I do the fluoride toothpaste instead.

    • David says:

      Sorry my reply wasn’t nested. I hit the “Reply” link in the email notification and it dropped me off at the page as if I was leaving a comment for the first time :sad-trombone:

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