Insurance: Don't be down in the mouth

As NHS treatment becomes increasingly rare, private cover may help reduce the pain of dentists' bills, writes Tim Collison

Despite the faults of the NHS most of us use it for our hospital treatment rather than go private. But when it comes to dental care, many of us no longer have the choice.

If you live in a big city you will probably struggle to find a dental practice still prepared to take on NHS patients. The sad fact is that most dentists cannot make enough from NHS fees.

The British Dental Association lays the blame firmly with the previous government for underfunding state dental care and for slashing dentists' fees in the early Nineties.

With dentists receiving just pounds 5.95 per NHS check-up, the few that are still committed to state care are forced to cram in as many patients as possible in order to make money. This has resulted in one in four of us turning to private dental care and paying, on average, three times as much as those on the NHS. According to research by Datamonitor, the average annual cost of private dental care for patients who need more than one treatment in a year is about pounds 400. Through a dental insurance scheme this bill could be reduced to about pounds 150.

There are several ways of taking out private dental cover. If you arrange a plan through your dentist it will be under a "capitation" scheme, meaning you pay a pre-arranged monthly fee for your dental treatment.

For this you receive routine check-ups, preventive care, accident and emergency insurance and all the treatment you need - barring certain exclusions - for the year.

Henry Clover, a former dentist and now an adviser to capitation plan provider Denplan, says: "Capitation schemes are all about preventive care. You get proper access to the dentist and you are not limited to the type of treatment and materials the dentist uses, as you are with the NHS."

Before you can sign up for a capitation scheme, the dentist will require your teeth to be in good order. On examination, the dentist will advise you of the dental work that must be done, which you will have to pay for out of your own pocket before you are eligible for the scheme.

The costs of capitation plans are based on the state of your teeth - the better the health of your teeth and gums, the cheaper the premium. They also take into account the location of the dental practice and the dentist's overheads. Denplan says that most of its patients pay between pounds 7.30 and pounds 18.85 per month. Bupa's charges are very similar, ranging from pounds 8 to pounds 18 per month.

Most dentists are tied to one capitation provider, so you cannot specify a particular scheme. That said, there are some things to watch out for, such as the exclusions on the plan: nearly all providers exclude laboratory work, like making crowns and bridges, although the dentist's time is covered.

You can also take out dental cover through an insurance company. For this, there are really only two providers: Western Provident Association (WPA), which sells its policies through brokers and independent financial advisers; and Boots, which sells policies from its high-street stores and over the telephone.

WPA offers three levels of cover. Providental covers dental emergencies, dental injuries, routine treatment and hospital charges. You can also take out cover against accidental damage to your teeth; and a policy which only covers dental emergencies. The monthly premiums are pounds 8.53, pounds 4.27 and pounds 1.80 respectively.

Boots offers two levels of cover: level one is designed to cover the costs of NHS treatment and level two is for people treated privately. The state pays for 20 per cent of NHS treatment, leaving the patient to pick up the remaining 80 per cent. Boots level one cover pays out for 75 per cent of the costs.

Cash plans have become a popular way of helping with dental costs. These provide a cash benefit while you are undergoing treatment. HSA is the leading provider in this field. It offers up to 21 separate cash benefits, which include dental care. Premiums start at pounds 1.60 per week.

n Contacts: Boots, 0845 840 1111; Bupa, 0800 237 7777; Denplan, 0800 401402; Densure, 01255 221001; HSA, 0800 150150; WPA, contact your local IFA or broker.

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