Bupa has set up a scheme to provide dental insurance. For the moment it covers only Bristol, Cardiff and Nottingham, but there are plans to extend it to the rest of Britain within 15 months.
The need is certainly there. More than 40 per cent of Britain's dentists now refuse to take on new National Health Service patients. London dentists charge between pounds 150 and pounds 250 for a crown. Across the country the average trip to a private dentist costs between pounds 40 to pounds 80, according to the British Dental Association.
Even as an NHS patient, you do not escape a bill. You have to pay 75 per cent of the cost of treatment, up to pounds 250.
Bupa is not offering traditional insurance, but then, nor do the other the big companies providing dental cover, such as Denplan and Charterpoint.
All the companies want their customers to consult dentists who offer their plan. The dentist should put you into good dental health and then decide the level of treatment you are likely to need in the future. The dentist decides the amount of premium after assessing your dental health.
Bupa has five categories of dental health; charges will depend upon your category and the dentist's charges.
No one will offer straight insurance, with fixed rates. Bupa, its biggest rival Denplan and others are all too well aware that they would be flooded with people who needed dental treatment, or had a bad history.
Costs can vary sharply, depending on the amount of treatment you are likely to need. If you have good teeth and there are no signs of trouble, the Bupa plan will, on average, cost you less than pounds 6 a month.
If you have average dental health and treatment needs, the bill will probably be slightly under pounds 11 a month. Bills for people with a bad dental prognosis will work out at an average of pounds 18 a month.
Denplan, the biggest group in the field with 400,000 clients, works in the same way. The group says that 90 per cent of its patients pay between pounds 5 and pounds 15 a month. Charterpoint will not give figures, because so many factors go into deciding the rates.
What will the policies cover? All of them include routine work, fillings, X-rays and preventative work. But none will cover you for orthodontic treatment, where dentists reshape your teeth, or for cosmetic work.
Bupa gives you the chance to cut costs by opting out of major restorative surgery. Savings vary from 5 per cent if your teeth are in good shape to 21 per cent if they come into the dentist's worst category. Considering premiums are low, and costs of this kind of dentistry extremely high, it would seem inadvisable to take up the offer.
Inevitably, there are differences in the small print. Bupa will cover you for treatment of wisdom teeth if the dentist can do it under a local anaesthetic. You are on your own if hospital treatment is needed, or a general anaesthetic, though private medical insurance should cover this.
Denplan has a different system. Dentists who belong to the scheme decide whether to include wisdom teeth, though the odds are likely to be against it.
Many insurers offer corporate dental plans for companies with more than 25 employees.
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