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COVID-19 Surge Attacks Americans' Teeth

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The worse the COVID-19 pandemic gets, the less likely Americans are going to the dentist to get routine exams and cleanings.

Executives from publicly traded U.S. life and health insurers are talking about the effects of the pandemic on U.S. oral health during conference calls with securities analysts, while going over earnings for the fourth quarter of 2020.

(Related: Principal Sees COVID-19 Impacting Earnings)

The impact of the pandemic on life insurance claims has come up often during the calls.

At Globe Life Inc., for example, Frank Svoboda, the chief financial officer, said Globe Life continues to estimate that it will get about $2 million in COVID-19-related life insurance claims for every 10,000 U.S. COVID-19-related deaths.

But Globe Life is now assuming that the United States will record about 270,000 pandemic-related deaths this year. That’s up from a 2021 death toll forecast of 160,000 the company was using a few months ago.

“Obviously, the amount of death benefits paid due to COVID-19 in 2021 will depend on many factors, including the effectiveness of the various vaccines and the speed at which the highest risk segments of our population get vaccinated,” Svoboda said.

Insurer executives have also talked about the impact of the pandemic on use of dental and vision benefits.

When the executives were going over earnings for the first three quarters of 2020, they said COVID-19 social distancing rules had depressed use of routine dental care late in the from mid-March through early May, but that use of routine dental care began recovering in the summer.

John McCallion, the chief financial officer at MetLife, said that growth in dental care utilization had stalled in the fourth quarter “most likely due to the resurgence in COVID-19 claims.”

Ramy Tadros, president of MetLife’s U.S. business, said that, in the fourth quarter, the “catch-up effect” for dental care pulled back. “And, in particular, it pulled back for preventative services,” Tadros said. “Think regular checkups, cleanings, etc.”

Use of preventive service also has been below expectations so far this year, Tadros said.

Amy Friedrich, president of the U.S. insurance solutions unit at Principal Financial Group Inc., talked about the cost of the dental care the insureds have been getting.

“For the fourth quarter we had thought things would normalize a little bit more, and they did in terms of what we’d consider a frequency, or utilization, metric,” Friedrich said. “What didn’t normalize in the fourth quarter was severity.”

The number of fillings, tooth extractions and dental restorations was particularly high in December, Friedrich said.

Friedrich said she hopes use of dental care will get back to normal this year, now that patients are more comfortable with seeing the dentist, and dentists know more about how to keep themselves and their patients safe.

— Read Q4 Life, Health and Annuity Earnings Calendar, on ThinkAdvisor.

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