Dentist (Photo: Yuriy Nedopekin/iStock)

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute’s annual report, poor wellness and prevention habits are once again expected to drive up medical costs in 2019.

Rising health care costs and high utilization of benefits have plagued employers for years. At first, wellness programs seemed promising with its health-conscious workforce, but the return on investment for these programs has also presented some challenges. So how can employers win this ongoing cost battle for healthy, productive employees?

One important way to improve wellness is to promote good oral and vision habits. Dental and vision insurance promote preventive care and contribute to overall health and wellness. These benefits help pay for services typically not covered by private medical plans, filling the coverage gap to maintain oral and eye health. More importantly, routine dental and vision exams may help decrease the number of claims from other more costly plans.

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Brokers should encourage their clients and employees to consider the value of their entire benefits package when making decisions about coverage. Dental and vision benefits improve overall wellness, reducing some health risks and potentially the utilization of disability benefits and other supplemental health plans, such as critical-illness and hospital insurance.

1. Why is good oral health important?

We often think of dental health as separate from physical health, but it plays a major role in our overall wellness. It’s associated with some serious medical conditions and diseases, including heart disease, stroke and premature birth. Regular dental exams can reveal early signs of oral cancer, heart disease and other diseases associated with oral health, making them easier to treat and control.

Our mouths are teeming with bacteria, and without proper oral hygiene and routine care, that bacteria can lead to oral infections and gum disease. Medical studies suggest that gum diseases like periodontitis can contribute to the development of conditions like endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart, (Mayo Clinic, 2016).

Routine dental visits can detect oral health problems early when treatment is likely simpler and more affordable, according to the American Dental Association. By contrast, lack of oral health care can mean a much later diagnosis and often a more aggressive treatment. For example, oral cancer tends to have a much higher death rate than cervical, thyroid or skin cancer, because it is routinely discovered far into its progression (Oral Cancer Foundation, 2017).

Regular dental care can also help manage health issues such as diabetes, or help prevent pregnancy complications and premature birth.

2. Why is healthy vision important?

Like dental health, vision health is a part of overall wellness. Vision loss is related to health conditions such as diabetes and is a top cause of disability for adults. Despite this, many adults don’t get regular annual eye exams to ensure the health of the eyes.

Although 11 million Americans over the age of 12 currently need vision correction, many individuals do not have access to routine eye health services or vision benefits. This lack of care can have serious effects on their eyesight and overall wellness. About 90% of vision loss related to diabetes is actually preventable if detected early, but studies show that 60% of patients with diabetes don’t get routine eye exams.

Vision is also one of the leading causes of disability among adults. The CDC estimates that blindness or vision impairment is among the top 10 disabilities for adults 18 and older. The number of individuals with vision impairment is expected to double in the next three decades because of the aging of the overall population. More adolescents and young adults today need vision correction than 40 years ago, according to a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology magazine (Dr. Susan Vitale, 2009).

According to the CDC, reduced vision contributes significantly to other wellness issues, such as social isolation and family stress, and individuals with vision loss have a greater tendency to have other health conditions or die prematurely.

3. How can dental and vision plans help reduce the need for disability and supplemental health benefits?

Unum received more than 424,500 new disability claims in 2017 and paid $3.8 billion in disability benefits. Many of the top causes for disability — cancer, cardiovascular disease, pregnancy complications and vision loss — have a connection to dental and vision health. The use of disability benefits and other supplemental health benefits — such as critical-illness coverage or hospital plans — signals heavy long-term costs, including long absences from the workplace and increased medical bills.

Individuals who receive regular dental and vision care have a greater likelihood of avoiding illnesses or minimizing the effects of a condition on their overall health. Access to these services through dental and vision benefits is a key way to ensure that people are getting routine care to prevent long-term health issues.

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Melissa Killian is vice president of dental and vision underwriting at Unum. Unum dental and vision products launched Jan. 1, 2017, after acquired Starmount Life Insurance Company in the third quarter of 2016.