COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on work and life. Health care changed dramatically too, with huge drops in emergency room use and an immediate shift to telehealth. But how about dental care? Did it get lost in the “work from home” shuffle? The pandemic’s impact may have actually been bigger on dental than on medical care and prescription drugs.

  • In March, dental offices followed recommendations by the American Dental Association (ADA) to limit in-office treatment to emergency or urgent care. This move caused utilization to plummet and dental insurance company profits to skyrocket.
  • When dental offices started to re-open in May, they introduced enhanced infection control procedures and PPE requirements ― increasing their overhead costs.
  • Pandemic-related furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts also impacted the use of dental services. Higher unemployment and less employer sponsored dental coverage led to less dental care.
  • The pandemic motivated many dentists to retire and others to join Dental Service Organizations (DSOs), which were better equipped to handle the increased costs. As a result, we could see 10-15% of dental practices disappear this year.

These changes prompted dental insurance carriers to do things like offer multi-year rate guarantees and premium “holidays.” Others provided subsidies to dentists for PPE-related expenses and some even rolled-out off-schedule fee increases to help providers weather the crisis.

What does all this mean to dental plan sponsors?
It may be a while before utilization trends in the dental industry return to pre-pandemic levels. And if your dental carrier offered you a rate continuance, a 5% rate decrease, and/or a premium holiday, you still may be overpaying (in the short run) for dental insurance. Dental claims for our self-insured clients fell by more than 5% in 2020.

In the long run, dental fee schedules will likely increase, and “accumulated neglect” may drive post-pandemic claim costs. That being said, it may be time to lock in multi-year pricing. If you need help with any of these considerations, please contact a member of the Chelko team.

This piece was written by Karen Halliinin. Prior to joining Chelko, Karen’s experience included more than a decade in executive roles with a number of leading dental plans.