Can You Afford the Cost of Dental Care?

David Levine

Unhappy with the way your teeth look? Thinking about having some work done -- maybe braces or veneers? Orthodontists have many tools at their disposal to help give you the smile you want. But can you afford the cost of orthodontic dental care?

Like any big purchase, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis. There are certainly numerous benefits, says Dr. Michael G. Durbin, an orthodontist with offices in Des Plaines and Long Grove, Illinois. "The most obvious benefit that patients see with orthodontic treatment, and generally the main reason they seek treatment in the first place, is the improved aesthetics that come with having straight teeth. Having a beautiful smile can leave a lasting first impression," says Durbin, who represents the Midwestern Society of Orthodontists on the board of trustees of the American Association of Orthodontists. "My experience has been that orthodontic treatment can really be life-changing for some. I have seen dramatic increases in levels of self-esteem in patients who were afraid to smile before treatment and couldn't stop smiling after treatment."

[See: 10 Healthy Teeth Habits From Dental Hygienists.]

There is a growing body of evidence that orthodontic treatment can be play a role in reducing bullying for kids who have severely misaligned teeth, Durbin adds. And having straight teeth can make it easier to brush and floss, which can improve oral health.

Dentures also bring with them many benefits. "They can restore function for those who have lost their teeth," Durbin says. "Dentures can help in chewing and speaking, and also serve a role in providing support for the soft tissues of the face and mouth. A well-made set of dentures is extremely important for the elderly who sometimes have issues nutritionally due to a lack of teeth."

Veneers, thin pieces of porcelain attached to existing teeth, are purely cosmetic and don't improve dental function. But "they may contribute to emotional health and self-esteem," says Dr. J. Kendall Dillehay, an orthodontist in Wichita, Kansas, and secretary-treasurer of the American Academy of Orthodontics. All in all, he says, "Orthodontic treatment can contribute to oral health, overall physical health and self-confidence. There is no age limit for having orthodontic treatment. It can be as successful in an 80-year-old as an 8-year-old."

So the benefits are real? But can you afford the costs of dental work?

What Is the Average Cost of Braces?

The cost of orthodontic treatment can vary widely depending on the severity of the case, the age of the patient, the time in treatment and the techniques used in treatment, Durbin says. The American Dental Association's Survey of Dental Fees for 2016 reported that comprehensive treatment of adolescents ranged from $4,978 to $6,900, and the fee for comprehensive treatment of adults ranged from $5,100 to $7,045. Treatment typically lasts 18 to 24 months and includes diagnostic records, treatment planning, appliance placement, regular follow-up and retainers at the end of treatment.

These costs are for comprehensive cases, but there are many cases that can be treated at a lower cost. "For instance, some patients fail to wear their retainers and have a slight amount of relapse that occurs several years after orthodontic treatment has been completed. These patients have limited issues that can be treated for a fraction of the cost of comprehensive treatment," Durbin says.

[Read: How Might My Oral and Dental Health Change as I Age?]

What Is the Cost of Braces With Insurance?

Everyone's coverage is different, of course. If a patient or parent has dental insurance that includes orthodontic benefits, the insurance will offset a portion of the fee. "In some cases, it can be a percentage of the fee. In other cases, there may be a lifetime maximum -- $1,500 is a common cap," Dillehay says. "Insurance was never intended to cover 100% of orthodontic treatment." However, payment plans do help, and "most orthodontists offer a variety of plans to help patients or parents fit orthodontic care into their budgets," he says.

What Is the Average Cost of Veneers and Dentures?

Prices for dentures and veneers vary widely. According to the American Dental Association, the average fee for veneers is $1,000 to $2,000 for each tooth, and the cost of a set of upper and lower dentures is $2,500 to $4,000. "Expect this fee range to vary considerably depending on the types of materials used," Dillehay says.

"Insurance coverage also varies widely, so patients are encouraged to visit their local dentist for an exam, evaluation and treatment plan that will outline costs involved as well as insurance coverage, if any," Durbin says.

[See: 7 Creative Soft Food Ideas to Ease Dental Procedure Recovery.]

Are There Programs to Help With the Cost of Braces and Dental Care?

Flexible Spending Accounts are an excellent way to save and pay for orthodontic treatment. Employees set aside pretax dollars that they can use to pay for uncovered healthcare costs, including orthodontic treatment.

Health Savings Accounts can also be used to pay for uncovered dental and orthodontic procedures. These plans are typically associated with high deductible health insurance plans. Patients should contact their employer for more information on how to use these plans to pay for dental services, Durbin advises.

Dillehay also recommends patients look into the following to help pay the cost of dental care:

-- The American Association of Orthodontists Donated Orthodontic Services Program provides access to orthodontic care for qualifying children who lack insurance coverage or who do not qualify for other assistance in their states of residence. The DOS program is available in all 50 states.

-- Smiles Change Lives and the Smile for a Lifetime Foundation also provide orthodontic treatment to qualifying children in many parts of the U.S.

-- Accredited orthodontic schools provide treatment, and often at fees lower than those of orthodontists in private practice.

-- Donated Dental Services helps with dental care for the elderly, medically fragile or those who have a permanent disabilities.

While the cost can seem high, Durbin says that orthodontic treatment should be viewed as a lifetime investment: "The cost of orthodontic treatment, when compared to other health care costs, has not come close to keeping pace with inflation over the years, even as technology has dramatically improved the patient experience. This makes orthodontic treatment one of the best values in health care."