A few weeks ago I posted that I was in the market for a new family dentist. Because I don’t have dental insurance, I am always looking for ways to keep my dental care within budget.
Friends have recommended several dentists to me, and I have been calling these offices and asking about cash discounts. It’s such a hassle and, frankly, a bit embarrassing. I’m not a haggler by nature.
I’ve gotten a variety of responses from “We aren’t accepting new patients” to “We only offer a new patient, first-time discount” to “We can give you a 5% cash discount on services.”
Five percent of what? Without knowing their prices up front, it’s difficult to know the value of the discount.
So far, I haven’t selected a dentist yet.
Then I heard about Brighter, a dental savings service being offered in Los Angeles. (Sadly for me, it’s not available in Seattle–yet.) Not only does it make finding quality, affordable dental care so simple, but it’s a fabulous model for how shopping for all types of health care should be.
Savings, not insurance
Most dentists set their prices based on how much an insurance company will reimburse. This is true of almost all health care services, and is partly responsible for price inflation.
Especially since insurance companies have been lowering their contracted reimbursement rates (narrow networks, anyone?), dentists, doctors and hospitals compensate by charging more. Those patients without insurance are then stuck with the full price.
Dentists (as well as doctors and hospitals) will negotiate cash prices because they will be paid much sooner. Insurance companies can takes weeks or months to reimburse a provider. With cash discounts, you are expected to pay at the time of service.
Brighter also puts their dentists through a “stringent evaluation process” that looks at “patient reviews, education, certification and clinical data.” Dentists that don’t meet Brighter’s quality standards are not contracted.
The dentists’ names, locations, credentials and discounted price lists are all available on the Brighter website.
Making it even more consumer-friendly, office hours and available appointment times are immediately visible for each dentist. Simply click on the date and time you want, and Brighter schedules the appointment for you.
Access to Brighter’s network is free of charge to the patient. Participating dentists pay a small handling fee per patient to cover Brighter’s service of scheduling appointments and communicating with patients.
Most other dental discount plans require you to buy an annual membership, usually costing about $100, to get access to their dentists and reduced rates.
I’ve looked at such a plan in Seattle (Quality Dental Plan–it’s actually a nation-wide membership plan), but there are no participating dentists within a 10-mile radius of my house. Also, looking at the listed rates, in my opinion the savings aren’t that great.
It’s all about transparency
There has been so much talk in recent months about how difficult it is for patients (consumers) to find out the cost of any medical procedure–exams, x-rays, CT scans, hip replacements, etc.–before scheduling the procedure. With or without health insurance, we only discover the total costs after the fact.
And yet we are being asked to pay more and more out-of-pocket for our health care through higher co-pays and deductibles.
Besides cost, consumers are also interested in quality of care and safety, both from our doctors and our hospitals, but that information is kept hidden from us.
This lack of transparency is a major roadblock to our getting affordable and quality care.
The feature of the Brighter website that I really like is that all this information is readily available. Anyone in the LA area can enter their zip code in “Find a Dentist” and get a list of local participating dentists. You can see each dentist’s regular and discounted prices for a variety of procedures, as well as credentials, reviews and office details. You can sort by price, rating and distance. A simple bell-curve graph lets you easily see where a dentist falls in price when compared to others in the area.
Because consumers have so much choice, the dentists have more incentive to keep their prices and other amenities competitive. Isn’t it nice to have dentists competing for a patient’s business, rather than the other way around? Traditional health care has providers choosing us (or not) based on our insurance plans.
Even if you don’t live in LA, the Brighter website can help you. The site’s “Price Checker” feature lets you enter any area code in the US and presents you with a colorful bell-curve graph that shows you typical prices per dental procedure in your area.
I looked at Seattle, and now armed with some basic information about average prices for an exam and x-rays, I can continue my search for a new dentist with a little more confidence–even when haggling cash discounts.
I have a dream . . . wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could shop for all our health care this way?
Full disclosure: I am not being paid by Brighter to post nice things about them. I simply think they offer a great service with an intelligent business model more people should know about–and demand from other health providers.
Note to Brighter: Please come to Seattle!