U.S. dental insurers are bracing for waves of retirees who will insist on sleeping with their teeth in their mouths.
Ted Williams, executive vice president of marketing at Security Life Insurance Company of America, Minnetonka, Minn., chuckles at the notion of boomers meekly accepting the need for dentures.
“My sense is that boomers are going to say, ‘Provider, you try to keep my teeth as long as you can,’” Williams says.
That trend should offer more opportunity for dental insurers and their brokers than risk, because many of the affluent and moderately affluent boomers who will be buying private dental coverage have had good dental coverage all their lives, Williams says.
For the most part, even though those well-heeled boomers are showing signs of wear and tear, “you’re insuring a mouth that has a pretty good set of teeth,” Williams says.
Years ago, many doctors trained during the era of technological miracles assumed that formula must be better than mother’s milk and that scientifically canned and frozen vegetables must be healthier than fresh vegetables.
Many dentists trained during that era believed that older Americans who were having trouble with their teeth should replace their teeth with dentures.
In the 1980s, because of the popularity of dentures, “there weren’t any dental products available for people over age 65,” Williams says.
Today, thanks in part to past shortcomings in dental care and dental insurance, about 24% of older U.S. residents age 65 and over have lost all of their original teeth, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
The situation is improving rapidly, but the most recent government figures available show that only about 63% of U.S. adults ages 65 and older visited a dentist in 1999.
One popular health insurance quotation site will not even let visitors search for insured individual dental coverage for individuals over age 65.
In recent decades, dental schools have trained younger dentists to try to save older patients’ natural teeth, Williams says.
Thanks to improvements in the overall level of dental care, especially for lifelong dental plan members, the average U.S. resident over age 65 now has 24 natural teeth left, up from an average of 7 in 1960, according to the Delta Dental Plans Association, Oak Brook, Ill.
Meanwhile, researchers are discovering important new information about connections between oral health and general health.
Doctors always knew that patients in poor general health tended to suffer from poor dental health.
In the past few years, scientists have published studies suggesting that gum disease and other dental problems might cause or aggravate some general health problems.
CIGNA Corp., Philadelphia, recently added coverage for extra dental care for pregnant health plan members because of research findings suggesting that gum disease might be responsible for as many as 18% of all premature births in the United States.
Columbia University public health researchers working with dental and medical claims data from Aetna Inc., Hartford, recently reported that treating gum disease can help hold down or even lower the cost of treating conditions such as diabetes and heart disease — even for patients who have both health coverage and dental coverage.
Dental health should be of special concern to financial advisors working with moderately affluent boomers, because boomers who neglect their teeth, fail to maintain dental coverage in their later years and end up needing major restorative work could have to decide between paying for tens of thousands of dollars for dental work — or parking their teeth in a jar at night.
Boomers who are still working for employers that provide group dental coverage can, of course, use the group coverage.
Boomer advisors working with self-employed boomers and early retirees may want to form referral relationships with brokers who are familiar with those advisors’ individual dental options.
Dental insurance experts say the picture could get more complicated in 2011, when the boomers start turning 65.
Although some insurers offer dental coverage options along with Medicare managed care plans and Medicare supplement insurance plans, most of the stand-alone products available to individuals over age 65 are discount-only programs, not insured dental plans, Williams says.
Aetna, for example, charges only about $5 to $15 per month for the dental plans that come with its Medicare managed care plans. The plans cover procedures such as oral exams and setting of crowns. But Aetna does not include insured dental coverage with its Medicare supplement insurance plans, and it does not ordinarily sell insured dental coverage to individuals outside the Medicare program, a spokeswoman says.
Another company, Health Services Group Inc., Portland, Ore., offers little coverage for dental services with its Medicare managed care plans, but it is selling dental coverage with its Medicare supplement policies for a cost of $42 per month.
Security Life is an example of a company that sells insured individual dental coverage to adults of all ages in a given area code for the same price, Williams says.
Years ago, Security Life based rates partly on the age of the insured, but it discovered that actual claims rates were similar enough for older and younger insureds to justify a flat rate structure, Williams says.