With the rising costs of health care, it’s harder than ever for employers to make room in the budget for additional employee benefits. Recognizing this, dental carriers have made voluntary dental plans easier for employers to implement, with more robust features.

A voluntary dental plan, where employees pay the costs of coverage, is one way to add tremendous value to an employee benefit program without increasing employers’ benefit costs. As is typical with voluntary benefits, employees are not required to participate in the plan, although the group must meet minimum participation requirements to be eligible for coverage.

With the growing enhancements to voluntary dental plans by carriers, now is a great time to consider offering this benefit to business clients. Dental plans that were generally limited to larger employer groups are now being offered to smaller groups with participation requirements as low as 10 employees or 35% of all employees.

A good voluntary dental plan is backed by a quality carrier, provides excellent claim and customer service and offers flexible plan designs.

Value to employees

There’s no doubt that employees want dental plans. This coverage is one of the most highly requested benefits. In 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 77% of employees participated in a dental plan offered by their employer; while 76% participated in an employer-provided medical plan.

It’s easy to see why employees recognize the importance of taking part in a dental plan provided through their employer–even if they have to pay for it. Once voluntary dental is installed, the employer will almost always see participation levels increase every year.

As with health care insurance, employees feel they need dental insurance more urgently than most other benefits, such as life and disability insurance. A recent survey by the American Dental Association found most adults had seen a dentist within the past year. In fact, 49.4% said they last saw a dentist less than 6 months ago, while an additional 20.5% saw one between 6 months and a year ago.

As a further boost to participation levels, employees who purchase voluntary dental are highly likely to cover dependents, knowing that each family member will need to visit the dentist at least once or twice a year.

The high cost of dental care is just one incentive for getting coverage through the employer. Another is convenience. Individual coverage does not come with the service support that is standard with a group plan. Amenities like automatic payroll deduction, personalized enrollment and the combined support of a benefits administrator and a carrier’s own customer-service professionals are important to plan members, especially when they are footing the bill.

Another plus is that the typical voluntary dental plan offers a choice among a variety of designs, similar to those afforded by fully insured or contributory plans. These range from traditional indemnity plans to participating provider organization plans.

As with medical PPO plans, dental PPOs offer discounts for services when the employee visits a certified, in-network provider, yet also provide the option of visiting an out-of-network dentist to those willing to pay more.

Dual-option voluntary dental plans give employees a choice between a high- and low-cost plan, depending on which works best for their needs and budget.

Value to employers

A recent LIMRA International survey found 41% of employers with no voluntary products said they would consider adding voluntary dental in the next 2 years. This is an increase from the 28% rate that was posted in a similar study 4 years earlier.

Carriers are also beginning to offer additional options to voluntary dental plans to make them even more attractive to employers. Plans may now offer such options as a maximum carryover account that saves a portion of unused yearly maximums for future use; optional orthodontic coverage; and movement of certain procedure codes between expense types, so the employer can change employees’ out-of-pocket expenses. These and other features can be added or left out, depending on the group’s needs.

Dental plans often have the highest volume of claims of any employee benefit. The value to employees comes when they know that claims will be paid quickly, accurately and with minimal paperwork. For these reasons, employers place high importance on an automatic claims system with customer service guarantees.

Other features that can help sell a voluntary dental program are online account services that enable employees to check the status of their claims, pay bills, order dental cards, submit questions to dental health professionals, get tips on oral health and dental education, and find providers. Employers also want to be able to update plan member information quickly and easily.

Enrollment support is another area that has improved the appeal of voluntary dental to employers, because it helps to increase participation. This support can range from producing personalized enrollment forms that are pre-populated with employee information, including the cost of the plan, to on-site enrollment meetings to explain the benefit plan in detail.

For some employers, adding a voluntary dental plan can be an important first step toward enriching benefits to attract and retain employees. For others, changing from an employer-paid to a voluntary plan is a step toward cutting costs without losing a highly valued plan completely.

For all these reasons, voluntary dental plans can be a great way to show an employer how to add to its bottom line–while improving that of the producer, too.

Suzanne M. Schoch is vice president of dental products for the Employee Benefits Group of the U.S. division of Sun Life Financial Inc., Toronto. She can be reached at