Like health care, dental care matters, too. While about 14 percent of Californians lack health insurance, 39 percent lack dental coverage, according to a 2009 brief from the California HealthCare Foundation.
Even if you have dental insurance, it often has coverage limits and varying levels of out-of-pocket spending requirements that differ from health insurance, as a recent Los Angeles Times report noted:
First, it's specifically designed to encourage preventive treatment. That's why most dental plans pay 100 percent for preventive services, such as cleanings, X-rays and checkups. Basic restorative services such as fillings and periodontal cleanings are generally covered at 80 percent, and you'll commonly get just 50 percent reimbursement for procedures such as implants and crowns.
In addition, they commonly come with low annual maximums that place a cap on what the plan pays toward care — the typical range is $1,000 to $1,500.
Even with coverage, the high cost of dental procedures prevents many people from seeking care. In a recent study of Los Angeles residents conducted by Empirica Research, 51 percent with dental insurance say they've delayed care because of cost. That number jumps to 68 percent among those without coverage.
Now, a new website, Brighter.com, has launched a free (to consumers) service to help connect people with dentists — at a discount. "The mission was to provide quality, affordable care to everyone," said Jake Winebaum, Brighter's CEO. "Brighter is the first marketplace where dentists are competing for patients based on quality, price and convenience."
Brighter has recruited a network of some 600 dentists. The individual dentists set their own prices for procedures, and all pricing is transparent on the website. Consumers can search for a dentist any way they like — by geography or by price — and book an appointment online. Patients must pay in full at the time of service.
Kate Quirk of Agoura Hills says she and her husband decided to opt out of the dental insurance offered by his employer. She says since they're young and healthy, they decided to pay out-of-pocket for preventive care. She found the website "straightforward, easy to use" and that the discounts offered are "pretty steep, almost unreal."
She said she was skeptical about the quality of Brighter's dentists but checked the ratings listed, including links to Yelp ratings on Brighter's site. She's been very happy with the dentist she chose, Michael Wong, in Santa Monica. His published "checkup and cleaning" price is $350, but he offers it for $150 on Brighter. Other Santa Monica dentists charge less than $100 for a checkup and cleaning.
Dentists pay $50 for each patient who comes in for an appointment. Dr. Wong said he's seeing about 4 to 6 patients a month from Brighter. He says he's "interested in doing high-quality dentistry," and that he does little other marketing besides Brighter. Most of his practice is word of mouth, and he hopes Brighter may add to that. "I get a patient in, if they like their treatment, they send friends and family."
Dr. Goli Javaher, also a dentist in Santa Monica, likes the lack of paperwork. She also observed that it's not fair that uninsured patients pay higher prices than patients with insurance, who benefit from the bargaining power of the insurance company. "The patients are so grateful," she said. It's treating them at the "same price as insurance."
Quirk said she started seeing Dr. Wong when she lived closer to Santa Monica than she does now. But she liked him so much she says she may make the drive to continue to see him.
"You've got really happy patients who are getting something they couldn't get before," Winebaum said, referring again to what he calls quality, affordable care, "and really happy dentists who are getting loyal patients."
Brighter is beginning an expansion in southern California outside of Los Angeles. In 2014 the company will expand to other not-yet-announced metropolitan areas outside California.