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Employers will focus more on dental plans
when seen in larger health promotion context

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 employee health.

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 America.

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 agency.

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 priorities. "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%, respectively;2
  • Patients who ignore regular dental care have a higher chance of visiting hospital emergency departments.3

Dental wellness

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 benefits.

Follow this link to hear Swanker and Garfield's presentations.

1University of Michigan. Blue Cross Blue Shield Study 2010
2Columbia University Aetna study. 2006
3Journal of Periodontology, June 2011


Guardian

The Guardian Life Insurance
Company of America

7 Hanover Square
H-26-E
New York, NY 10004
212/598-8000
www.aboutemployeebenefits.com

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