Take a bite out of dental bills

Baby boomers beware: A major retirement expense may be hiding in your mouth.

A majority of those age 50 to 64 either believe that — or are unsure whether — a Medicare health insurance plan will cover routine dental care, according to a recent survey by advocacy group Oral Health America (OHA). (To download the study, click here.)

The reality is that Medicare doesn't cover most routine dental care, such as cleanings and fillings; procedures, such as tooth extractions; or supplies, such as dentures, dental plates or other dental devices.

Dental costs
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"The issue dates back 50 years, to the origination of Medicare, when oral health was not included in that bill," said OHA president and CEO Beth Truett. "Now, with 10,000 people retiring a day, suddenly people began to say, 'Wait a minute, this is not what I expected.'"

Truett said just 10 percent of seniors have dental care when they retire. So from cleanings to dentures, you are mostly on your own — and those expenses can really add up, taking a big bite out of your nest egg.

So much so that many retirees are opting to avoid going to the dentist altogether, with 40 percent saying they haven't been to the dentist in the last year. "Without coverage, they're afraid of what they'll find," Truett said.

Buying your own dental insurance is an option, and Truett points to United Concordia and United Health as two insurers who have been active in developing senior plans. Also, some Medicare Advantage managed-care plans offer dental benefits. (To find out more about costs and how to enroll, click here.)

But a common criticism of plans like these is that they do not cover much of the expensive periodontal needs of seniors, such as implants, and there can be a cap on what's covered.

The good news is, there are ways to save on your dental bills. Here are four strategies to help you drill down those costs.

1. Look up prices before you go. Start by looking online at general prices for procedures in your area. One great resource is run by Fair Health, a nonprofit that has a searchable database of dental bills on its website Fairhealthconsumer.org. You'll be able to see the estimated out-of-pocket costs for various dental procedures, including root canals and cleanings.

"Medicare doesn't cover most routine dental care, such as cleanings and fillings; procedures, such as tooth extractions; or supplies, such as dentures, dental plates or other dental devices."

Knowing the price ahead of time can help you plan for how much money you'll need in retirement, as well as help you comparison-shop providers.

2. Take advantage of group discounts. Even if you don't have dental insurance, there are ways to take advantage of large group discounts by enrolling in a non-insurance dental savings plan.

Similar to a warehouse shopping club, you pay an annual membership fee to gain access to lower rates, which can be 10 percent to 60 percent less than if you go it alone. Just be sure to understand what types of procedures are covered before signing up.

3. Access veterans' benefits, if you qualify. Also, if you're a veteran, you may be eligible for dental-care benefits. Levels of coverage range from extensive care to very limited coverage, depending on your situation. For more information, go to the VA website at www.va.,gov.

4. Find lower fees at dental school clinics. Finally, consider checking out the closest dental school. Some universities offer dental-care services for a fraction of what you would normally pay at a practice.

You can scour the American Dental Education Association's website at www.adea.org for a list of accredited dental schools across the country.