Employers understand that improving employee health is
not only highly desirable in itself, but also the most effective
long-term solution to the high and rising cost of health benefits. A
fact unknown to many employers, however, is that a strong,
prevention-oriented dental benefit can play a critical role in promoting
When benefit advisers communicate that message, employers are far
more likely to give serious consideration to the adequacy of their
current dental benefit program – and be open to considering
superior alternatives, according to Chris Swanker, FSA, MAAA, vice
president, dental and vision for The Guardian Life Insurance Company of
Swanker recently delivered a detailed presentation on the role of
dental benefits in a wellness strategy. He was joined by Fred Garfield,
senior VP and principal of The Horton Group Inc., a Chicago-based Top 50
Focus on health habits
Fresh evidence of employers' priorities came in this year's Aon
Hewitt Healthcare Survey of Employers: Nearly 69% of employers said they
want to "improve health habits" of their employees, while less than half
picked achieving a "lower medical cost trend" in a list of top
"Yet what many employers don't realize," according to Swanker, "is the
close connection between oral health and overall health, not to mention
the workplace impact of dental illness."
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in one year,
dental illness causes more than 160 million lost work hours (not to
mention another 51 million lost school hours for students) for
treatment. "This is a staggering cost to business," Swanker says.
Those statistics do not even reflect the fact that poor dental health
(including periodontal disease) is commonly linked to a host of major
medical conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory
disease, cancers, stroke and complications from pregnancy – some of
the biggest drivers of health plan costs.
Window on diseases
"What's more, dentists can detect many disease symptoms through the
mouth – in many cases, catching it before it worsens, during the
window when it is more treatable," according to Swanker.
He also notes that the health care costs of patients with severe
periodontal disease are 21% higher than those without, citing a 2007
study reported in the Journal of Periodontology.
Some additional statistics that may seize employers' attention when
discussing the importance of dental benefits:
- Diabetics who have regular periodontal services can lower their
overall medical and pharmacy costs by more than 10%, and their
diabetes-related costs by up to 19%;1
- Periodontal treatment reduces the medical costs of patients
with coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease by 16% and 11%,
- Patients who ignore regular dental care have a higher
chance of visiting hospital emergency
It's not enough for advisers to rattle off statistics, of course.
Those who can help employers see that a well-designed dental benefit
plan with preventive care features can be an integral component of a
wellness strategy "can distinguish themselves with clients as true
consultants and problem-solvers," Swanker says. Doing so requires
gaining a clear understanding of the company's existing dental plan,
other benefits and health promotion strategy.
Providing comprehensive employee education on the importance of oral
health may be a perfect fit, and fill an important gap, within an
employer's wellness program.
Motivating employee action
Even when employers fully grasp the importance of dental health in
the larger medical and health promotion context, some may question what
it will take for employees to take full advantage of a dental plan that
includes preventive benefit elements. "This is where the plan design
discussion comes in," Swanker says.
While employers may pay greater attention to plan design when the
benefit is employer-paid, many are also interested even when dental is
offered on a voluntary basis when they see the benefit's potential to
have a big impact on employee health.
Dental benefits can incorporate effective financial incentives for
employees to obtain regular check-ups. For example, under Guardian's
"Maximum Rollover" plan design, employees earn progressively higher
maximum benefit amounts each year when they maintain a schedule of
regular oral exams.
It should also be noted that employers take notice when advisers
commit to playing an active role in educating employees about the
importance of dental health, coach them on being smart consumers of
dental services and how to take full advantage of their dental
Follow this link
to hear Swanker and Garfield's presentations.
1University of Michigan. Blue Cross Blue Shield Study
2Columbia University – Aetna study. 2006
3Journal of Periodontology, June 2011