At large U.S. employers, 2010 dental benefits may be similar to what the employees have now.

The dental benefits experts who are making the forecasts say typical large employers have already designed their 2010 dental benefits programs.

Because dental plan enrollees are afraid of losing their dental benefits, “utilization is up a little bit,” and, because of layoffs, “average case size is down,” says Dr. James Gimarelli, vice president of dental at Assurant Employee Benefits, Kansas City, Mo.

Back in the 1990s, asking for a 15% increase on dental renewal rates was common, Gimarelli says. “Now,” he says, “it’s hard to get 5%.”

But insurers have been marketing dental coverage heavily this summer, and experts say dental has been a welcome island of stability.

Most of the time, “dental plans change slowly,” says Dr. Marvin Zatz, a national dental consultant in the Parsippany, N.J., office of Towers Perrin Forster & Crosby.

Dental insurer executives are wrestling with questions such as, “How will we handle implants?” while executives in some other sectors are still not entirely sure whether their sectors will still continue to exist.

But most employers with dental plans for current employees are keeping the plans, and the kinds of larger employers that Towers Perrin advises are increasing the typical annual maximum to about $1,500, up from $1,250 a few years ago, Zatz says.

Delta Dental of Arizona, Phoenix, recently made headlines in its community when it decided to hold rates for small employers steady.

Assurant Employee Benefits has developed dental plan options that permit families to share annual maximum totals.

Many dentists and dental plan executives would like to see more emphasis on use of dental benefits to improve employees’ overall health, in light of research showing that preventing and treating gum disease may decrease diabetes, stroke and heart disease claim costs, and possibly reduce the risk that pregnant women will suffer from disastrous complications.

Some medical insurers in Japan already offer discounts to employers that integrated medical and dental insurance. Out in the real world, however, the turmoil in other benefits sectors has distracted employers, and medical-dental integration is relatively rare, Zatz says.

If a medical insurer does want to see if extra patient dental care can help control claims costs, “you have to identify who these patients are,” Zatz says.

Dentists also should acknowledge that “it’s very difficult to get certain patients to come in to have dental treatment.”

“There’s interest” in creating incentives for patients to get regular preventive dental care,” Zatz says, but “there isn’t great interest.”