Analysis: Dental cover - cost confusion

Helping employees understand how to fund their care

Research suggests that people remain uncertain about the cost of undergoing dental treatment, both privately and in the NHS, with some deterred from visiting by fears about prices. Madeleine Davies asks how dental benefits can help people to fund their care.

Last year mystery shoppers from consumer champion Which? called 423 private dental practices to check their prices. What they discovered is “wild” variation. Prices ranged from £45 to £124 for an initial check-up and from £250 to £518 for a crown.

In the wake of the investigation, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has announced a market study to examine whether the dentistry markets (both private and NHS) are working well for patients. It will look at how dentistry services are sold, whether patients have enough information to make an informed choice about where to undergo treatment and how easy it is to change dentists or to make a complaint.

“Patients appear to be confused about the prices they are being charged and concerns have been raised that they may not be getting sufficient information or adequate choice over the dental treatments they receive,” says OFT director Sonya Branch. “We also note that the costs of private dental treatment in England are among the highest in Europe. Given the current strains on people's finances, we think it is a good time to examine whether competition is working effectively to drive up the quality of private and NHS dental services and deliver better value for money for consumers.”

Confusion

Brokers and dental benefit providers agree that confusion surrounds the cost of dental treatment.

“As more people are having to consider going private or their practice is going private they are in need of more clarity to be able to make an informed decision,” says Matthew Judge, technical director at national intermediary Jelf Employee Benefits. “The major problem is where to access information regarding fee schedules.”

“Corporate employers are not as informed as buyers as they could be,” says Joanne Anderson, senior consultant at Towers Watson, another intermediary. “There is a lack of reliable resources easily available about quality and cost.”

Mike Blake, compliance director at national specialist intermediary PMI Health Group, agrees that it is difficult to know whether a dentist’s pricing reflects good value while Richard Chandler, senior employee benefits consultant at Lorica Employee Benefits, would like to see “jargon-free, clear price and options lists.” When Which? mystery shoppers were sent to surgeries across England, only seven out of 40 had their prices displayed.

Even within the NHS, where treatments are categorised into three pricing bands, there can be confusion, according to Tracey Williams, client analyst at specialist intermediary Enrich, who points out that, pre-banding, consumers were accustomed to specific prices for specific treatments.

“This confusion has been further exacerbated by the continued shift to more private dental practices and the differentiation in costs compared to NHS treatment,” she reports. “Many dentists who offer NHS dental care will also provide private treatment and this then ‘muddies the waters’ even more as to how much treatment should cost.”

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