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Dental Update: More Workers Are Paying the Full Bill

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The job market might be getting a little better, but Gary Ballman still isn’t seeing employers rushing to offer richer dental benefits.

Since the economy ran into turbulence in late 2008, sellers of dental insurance and other health insurance products have talked about seeing employers reduce case sizes by laying off workers or restricting employee access to some or all benefits.

In some cases, insurers have found that growth has come from downsized employees struggling to buy individual products as replacements for the coverage they once had through their employers.

Ballman, a staff vice president dental product and development at WellPoint Inc., Indianapolis (NYSE:WLP), recently participated in a brief e-mail question-and-answer interview with LifeHealthPro and gave his thoughts on the state the dental market. Here is an edited version of the results.

What’s happening with sales?

We are seeing a trend in employees having to pay a larger share of premiums. For example, we are beginning to see a shift from 100% employer-paid plans to plans that share the cost between employee and employees, as well as to plans that are 100% employee-paid.

Are there any changes in what employers and employees want covered?

Employers and their employees are requesting that their dental plan cover sealants, benefit rollovers, enhanced benefits for related medical conditions, adult orthodontia and dental implants.

How is the economy affecting your recommendations for plan design?

The shift toward employees paying more of the premiums is one of the reasons why we believe it’s important for employers to offer their employees plans that have strong networks. When employees visit an in-network provider, they can potentially receive richer benefits at the discounted network rate — in other words, the members’ out-of-pocket costs are generally lower.

Why should employers keep dental coverage in place, given how soft the economy has been?

Industry studies and our own data show that people who have dental benefits are more likely to have a regular dentist, see a dentist within the last year, and take their children to see a dentist more than once a year than those who do not have dental benefits.