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Putting your money where your mouth is

NHS dentists may be hard to find, and private dentists expensive, but dental insurance policies won't necessarily save you money, warns the Consumers' Association in this month's Which? magazine.

Which? estimates the average cost of insurance at pounds 100 a year - a figure which might more than cover many people's normal dental costs. Furthermore, many policies will only accept you once your teeth and gums are up to a certain standard, while some won't allow claims for treatment in the first six months.

If you are offered dental cover through your employer, this is generally a good deal, Which? says. Even if your employer doesn't pay the premiums, the cost is still generally cheaper than insurance arranged on your own. If it does, you pay tax on the value of the benefit like any other benefit- in-kind, but this should be even less.

Which? recommends searching hard for an NHS dentist, especially if you have a family, because children are treated free. Others who get free NHS treatment include pregnant women; mothers with a child under the age of one; the under-18s (under-19s if in full-time education); people on family credit or jobseekers' allowance; and those collecting pensions who are also on income support. Others on low incomes may be able to get help by filling in an HC1 form, available from dentists and some post offices.

If you are not due any financial help, you pay 80 per cent of the costs of NHS treatment up to a maximum of pounds 330 for each course of treatment. The rest is paid by the state. With private dentists there are no standard charges or limits, and treatment could cost many times what it would under the NHS.

One attraction of private insurance, says Which?, is that it may cover more expensive cosmetic treatment not available under the NHS, such as white fillings in back teeth.

As well as straightforward dental insurance policies, there are also what are known as capitation schemes and healthcare cash plans. The former are taken out through a specific dentist and Which? describes them as "essentially budget plans". Expensive treatment may not be fully covered, and often your teeth will have to be brought up to scratch before you can be insured.

PPP's Denplan is the market leader. Healthcare cash plans also include cover for such things as optician costs. The plans pay out a proportion of any dental bills up to a limit. No check-ups are needed before you sign up, but typically you will not be able to claim for the first six months that your plan is running.