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3 reasons customers are seeking dental insurance now

The pandemic has changed how we work, how we interact and even how we think about our health and safety. As consumer attitudes toward oral health have changed, dental insurance has become more important than ever. Here are some of the reasons that employers and individuals alike are seeking out dental benefits in 2022 and how you can help meet the new demand.

1. Competitive benefits help employers combat the Great Resignation

The pandemic has triggered an exodus from the workforce that economists have labeled the “Great Resignation.” One of the top reasons employees are giving for leaving a position is lack of adequate benefits. 

As the pandemic reshapes the labor market, companies must rethink and retool their benefit offerings to attract and retain talent. About 37% of employees in a recent survey said they value stronger benefits over additional salaries or bonuses, and they consistently rank dental insurance as one of the most important benefits in making a job decision.

Employers who offer dental insurance want a plan that stands out. With Delta Dental, you can help your group clients create plans with the attractive added benefits that employees are seeking now, like maximum waivers for diagnostic and preventive services and coverage for popular but costly services like implants and orthodontics.

2. Dental health needs have grown

The pandemic has also had a direct effect on oral health, creating another reminder of the value of dental insurance. A 2021 survey conducted by the American Dental Association showed a major increase, up to 71%, in stress-related oral health conditions during the pandemic, and more than a quarter of the dentists surveyed reported an increase in cavities and gum disease, as well.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, those with insurance remained more likely to visit the dentist than those without, thereby increasing the likelihood for positive health outcomes when faced with these new challenges.

Companies are seeking to bulk up their benefits to attract and retain employees, and workers are likewise seeking strong dental packages to handle the health issues arising due to the pandemic. Match clients with the dental coverage they’re looking for with Delta Dental PPO™ and DeltaCare® USA plans, which can meet these new demands and reduce the chances for serious (and expensive) health issues down the line.

3. Patients value teledentistry as an option

Fear of returning to the dentist caused teledentistry to boom during the pandemic, with more patients using the technology than ever before. For instance, Delta Dental’s synchronous and asynchronous teledentistry claims in 2021 were six times and two times higher than 2019 levels, respectively.

Many consumers grew accustomed to using teledentistry during the pandemic, and they want to have it as an option moving forward for its safety and convenience. Satisfaction levels with teledentistry services during the COVID-19 pandemic were 100% in the satisfied and very satisfied categories, according to one recent study, and 96% of participating patients in another study said they would use the service again.

When your clients are covered under a Delta Dental PPO or Delta Dental Premier plan, they have two options for free-to-access, easy-to-use teledentistry platforms:

  • Virtual Consult. Offers patients a consultation with a Delta Dental dentist about dental issues over live video.
  • Toothpic. Offers patients a format to submit photos to receive personalized treatment recommendations from a Delta Dental dentist within 24 hours.

And with Delta Dental, members can still see a dentist in person after choosing a virtual dentistry appointment.

Reminding clients of the convenience, popularity and safety of teledentistry can help make a comprehensive dental insurance package that much more attractive. Delta Dental plans give you access to the technology that your clients want now.

Your clients need dental benefits in a post-pandemic world

The pandemic has changed some of Americans’ central attitudes toward dental benefits. Employers are looking to add or increase benefits, and individuals have started to realize the long-term advantages of maintaining their oral health through robust coverage.

With Delta Dental, you can help your clients find affordable, highly rated coverage and a large network of experienced providers. Check out Delta Dental’s wealth of sales resources, and be sure to talk to your group and individual clients about the importance of dental insurance to help them select a Delta Dental plan that can support their overall needs.

The role of the broker post-COVID

The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of American life, and selling insurance is no exception.

Your clients are conducting business differently. Budgets have been cut and many employees continue to work remotely. The benefits landscape has changed as well. Many of your clients’ employees are dealing with new economic realities, so they’re looking at benefit choices differently.

Here are some of the trends that have transformed the role of the benefits broker in the era of COVID.

New ways to connect with clients

Despite the challenges of the past two years, you’ve still worked to connect, engage and build relationships with your clients. While you’ve probably had less interpersonal contact with your clients, their expectations of speed, personalization and convenience have risen, and virtual enrollment has become the norm.

As a result, delivering value to your clients through digital services and compelling experiences can help you thrive in this new environment. For 2022, be sure to check Delta Dental’s marketing resources for a selection of digital resources that can help you communicate with your clients, from individuals and small businesses to larger companies with 100 employees or more. 

Advising clients on benefits that work in the new normal

What your clients and their employees want from their benefits is probably different from what they wanted a few years ago. With a decentralized workforce, flexibility and choice are more valuable than ever, and savvy brokers have kept pace with employees’ interest in new and expanded benefits.

Consider:

  • Ensuring that telehealth, such as Delta Dental’s Virtual Consult, and expanded mental health services are included in health care offerings.
  • Offering benefits and perks that promote employee well-being, including overall wellness, mental health and even financial health. Delta Dental gives enrollees access to attractive value-added features, such as discounts on Amplifon hearing aids and QualSight LASIK eye surgery.
  • Taking on an advisory role to help clients and employees understand what’s available to them and choose the best options.

The number of employers offering voluntary benefits increased 27% during the COVID pandemic. For brokers, this is an opportunity to expand workplace benefits offerings. 

Greater focus on the whole family

Your clients’ employees probably spend more time at home than ever before. Some became caregivers for their parents; others took on educational roles for their children.

Now more than ever, employees are looking for benefits that extend to their family members. A recent survey of employers found that 41% of respondents plan to newly offer or expand senior care benefits to employees, and 63% said they plan to increase their company’s current child care benefits.

Looking ahead

You likely saw your business change in the past few years. But crisis breeds opportunity. Economic challenges offer you the chance to demonstrate the value you bring to your clients and their employees and help them navigate this new world.

What to expect in 2022 benefits trends

In the midst of the Great Resignation, benefits are more important than ever for groups and individuals alike. About 37% of employees would rather receive more substantial benefits than additional salaries or bonuses.

That means that in-office perks like free snacks or casual dress won’t necessarily cut it on their own. Instead, workers are looking for more specific, long-term investments into their financial and physical well-being.

Voluntary benefits

Historically, companies have offered blanket benefits and resources that give the same support to all their employees. Often, benefits packages are designed to satisfy employees in key groups, like emerging talent and leadership, while other employees’ needs are prioritized much lower.

Employees with mature careers and families to care for have different priorities in mind than those who are just starting out. In 2022, many employers are looking to design more flexible benefits packages so that all employees get more of the coverage they want, with less fluff. That means adding opt-in benefits like pet insurance, critical illness plans and increased mental health support.

Expanded health services

The pandemic solidly established the connection between employee well-being and productivity ― and employers took note. About 32% of employers indicated they were working on expanding and strengthening their virtual care or telehealth programs. Another 25% said that they would increase the mental health support services offered to employees.

Individuals who purchase their plans directly from you are also looking for virtual care programs. With these kinds of benefits becoming valuable, expect to see Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) increase in 2022 as well.

Flexible work arrangements

Employees want to be able to design the work-life balance they need, rather than trying to fit in to what their company has previously set. The good news is if your group clients are looking to hire in 2022, you can share with them that flexible work will be an easy way to drive applications and retain employees.

Flexibility is the fastest growing priority for job seekers. Jobs that offer remote work receive four times the applications than onsite jobs do, LinkedIn found. But flexibility and remote work aren’t just good for getting new applications — employees who are satisfied with their work schedules and locations are more likely to enjoy working for you and recommend your workplace, according to the same study.

Paid family leave and child care assistance

The lines that separate work time and home life blurred significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and enrollees are looking for benefits that acknowledge the realities of life. Only 40% of employers offer paid family leave for both mothers and fathers, and only 6% offer child care benefits, despite many parents working full-time.

The lack of reliably safe child care during the pandemic has enrollees looking for financial support when it comes to child care and paid time off to take care of their kids. To build a benefits package that supports your enrollees and their kids, consider rebates or financial help with the costs of daycare, or even adding more paid time off to care for young children.

Investments for financial security

Did you know many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck? After roughly 9.6 million U.S. workers lost their jobs due to COVID-19, the stress of living without a solid financial backup has many people looking to boost their savings. Employees are looking to their employers for support when it comes to money, and they’re open to more than just a higher salary.

Employees indicate that financial benefits — like tools that automatically put part of their paycheck towards debt — would lead to less financial stress in their lives. Programs like emergency cash grants or loan programs have shown great results as well. In one study, 72% of employees who benefited from a hardship fund expressed they were more likely to stay with their employer and about 65% indicated that the fund greatly lessened their financial stress.

Whether you work primarily with groups or individuals, keep in mind that enrollees are looking for support. By taking a flexible approach to benefits packages that allow different priorities to shine, you’re expanding your pool of potential enrollees.

Catch up on selling Affordable Care Act plans

It’s open enrollment season for Affordable Care Act-compliant (ACA) dental plans on Health Care Exchanges (Marketplaces). Here’s what you need to know to sell ACA exchange plans to your individual clients.

Dates to know

  • November 1, 2021: Open enrollment begins.
  • December 15, 2021: Last day to enroll in or change plans for coverage that begins on January 1, 2022. (Please note that this date may be subject to extension.)
  • January 1, 2022: Coverage begins for those who enrolled by the December due date and have paid their first premium.
  • January 15, 2022: Last day to enroll in or change plans for 2022 coverage in the following states:
    • Federally Facilitated Marketplace states – AL, AR, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, KS, LA, MI, MS, MT, OK, OR, TX, UT, VA and WV
    • MD, MN, NV, PA, and WA

After this date, individuals must qualify for a Special Enrollment Period to enroll in a new plan or change their current one.

  • January 30, 2022: Last day to enroll in or change plans for 2022 coverage in the following states:
    • CA, NJ and Washington DC.
  • February 1, 2022: Coverage begins for those who enrolled by the January due date and have paid their first premium.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 expanded ACA access

In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Among its other effects, this law will lower premiums this year for most people who currently have a Marketplace health plan and expand access to financial assistance. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released a factsheet that breaks down the steps required for your clients to make the most of this expanded access.

The basics of exchanged-based dental plans

All plans offered through public exchanges are available in two forms:

  • Health plans that include dental coverage
  • Stand-alone dental plans

Both stand-alone plans and bundled plans are available as high and low plans.

  • High plans. These plans feature higher monthly premiums but lower coinsurance and deductibles. These plans may be appropriate for clients who anticipate needing extensive care over the course of the year.
  • Low plans. These plans have lower monthly premiums but higher coinsurance and deductibles. These plans have lower fixed monthly costs but higher out-of-pocket expenses for dental care. These plans may be better for clients who are in good dental health and anticipate only needing routine cleanings and exams.

Dental insurance is an essential benefit for children, but not adults

For children 18 and younger, dental coverage is considered an essential benefit. That means that dental coverage must be made available by insurers, either in the form of a stand-alone plan or as part of a bundled health plan. Because dental coverage isn’t an essential health benefit for adults, insurers aren’t required to offer it.

Selling Covered California has some unique aspects

As a public exchange, Covered California has much in common with other exchanges. However, there are some differences that are unique to California. One of the biggest is these is extra certification requirements beyond the ACA-mandated training.

As an insurance broker, you’re required to have additional certification to sell Covered California plans. Beyond the regular licensing requirements to sell insurance in California, you must also complete online course, pass an exam and submit various paperwork to receive certification as a Covered California agent.

Here are some other considerations for selling in California:

  • California permanently adopted an extended open enrollment schedule, running from November 1, 2021 through January 31, 2022.
  • California offers both PPO and HMO plans.
  • Children are granted dental benefits under health plans at no extra cost. Additionally, children under 19 can be added to family dental plans to get coverage of services like fillings and crowns.

Selling individual coverage through ACA-funded exchanges presents some unique challenges, but it can be worth the learning curve to reach otherwise underserved markets and receive the 10% premium per member commission. You can also take pride in knowing that you’re helping those without employer-based coverage gain the security that comes from having dental coverage. If you haven’t already, visit the Delta Dental Health Care Exchange page for brokers to get appointed and learn more.

COVID-19 by the numbers

The early days of the pandemic brought a tidal wave of changes to the dental industry. As a broker, you know that those shockwaves ripple out to affect your business. Understanding how COVID-19 impacted patients, dentists and the dental insurance industry helps you plan for the future and informs how you can best serve your clients. Let’s take a deep dive into claims data, patient surveys and expert opinions.

The rise of teledentistry

During the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, dental offices were closed to physical appointments for weeks. This led to a massive surge in the popularity of teledentistry services. Synchronous appointments (those with live phone or video interaction between dentists and their patients) saw a 3,000% increase between 2019 and 2020, according to Delta Dental claims during that period. Asynchronous appointments (where patients took photos or videos that were sent to a dentist for later review) saw a 1,000% increase in the same time period.

The use of teledentistry has declined as the pandemic has worn on and dentist offices have reopened, but 2021’s synchronous and asynchronous appointment numbers still remain six times and two times higher than 2019 levels, respectively.

More states also updated their teledentistry laws during the pandemic. Based on Delta Dental’s internal tracking, fourteen states added teledentistry regulations to their laws or expanded existing regulations, including states like Texas that had previously not allowed the practice of teledentistry at all.

Most importantly, in a phone survey of teledentistry patients during the pandemic, patients expressed widespread satisfaction with their options. This aligns with pre-pandemic expectations that patients had about teledentistry, in which 78% of patients surveyed expected to use teledentistry within the next five years. That same group anticipated that working people, children and people with disabilities would benefit the most from teledentistry.

Dentists also had praise for teledentistry, with over 80% of dentists identifying it as useful for improving access to oral care, increasing specialists’ access to rural and underserved communities and as a time-saving technique. Virtual visits may not replace in-person checkups, but they remain a valuable tool for both dentists and patients, and an important consideration for your clients.

Keeping dentists (and you) in business

The beginning of the pandemic was marked by profound economic uncertainty as dental practices closed and people sheltered in place. General practitioner income dropped nearly 18% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Recognizing that without adequate resources dentist offices may be forced to close, Delta Dental was able to assist with loans, reimbursements for personal protective equipment (PPE) costs and free teledentistry tools that allowed dentists to see patients remotely.

Loans offered in partnership with Provide (formerly Lendeavor) allowed dentists to make practice acquisitions, expand to new locations, purchase commercial real estate and equipment, build out their practices and refinance existing practice and commercial real estate debt. These loans featured favorable terms and conditions, such as covered interest for 24 months, deferred payments for 6 months, repayment terms of 10+ years and working capital of up to $200,000.

Delta Dental also offered a supplemental reimbursement for qualifying evaluations and consultations during the second half of 2020. This Return to Care reimbursement led to an additional $80 million for dentists last year to help offset the costs of PPE and office cleanings.

The pandemic saw the rollout of two teledentistry options for Delta Dental members: Delta Dental – Virtual Consult and Toothpic.

  • Virtual Consult is a synchronous service where members can use a smart device to have a live video chat with a Delta Dental dentist.
  • Toothpic is an asynchronous service that allows members to take photos of problem areas and get an assessment from a Delta Dental dentist within 24 hours.

These services are free for members and dentists. Most importantly for your clients, these options expand access to assist patients who may have difficulty making it to in-person visits or prefer a remote appointment.

How patients used their benefits

The early stages of the pandemic saw a drastic decline in the number of patients going to the dentist’s office. One of the main reasons for the decline was that the sharp economic shutdown led to over 20 million Americans losing their jobs (PDF) and their dental coverage as well. Of these 20 million, nearly half found themselves without insurance at all. The remaining jobless got dental coverage through resources like Medicaid.

This decline in visits to the dentist office had a profound effect on patients’ oral health. 

In 2019, the most common procedures according to Delta Dental claims data were either routine preventive care or evaluations for specific issues. This shifted in 2020, when some of the most common procedures were fillings and root planing, which help address the effects of dental neglect.

In addition to the economic hardships COVID-19 brought to patients, COVID also increased mental and emotional strain. Since the pandemic began, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders has risen from about 10% to over 40%.

These symptoms can manifest in jaw clenching and teeth grinding; based on Delta Dental claims data, the number of patients requiring occlusal guards to prevent damage rose nearly 10% in the second half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. 

Anxiety and depression can also worsen an unhealthy diet or substance abuse, which can lead to oral health issues such as cavities. This may also help to explain the surge in fillings and scaling and root planing procedures in 2020.

Health and safety in the dental office

Even though COVID-19 is spread by exhaled aerosolized droplets, visits to the dentist’s office proved safer than visiting any other medical professional during the pandemic. Nearly 100% of dentist offices rapidly adopted enhanced infection control measures like pre-appointment screenings, in-office air purification and antiviral mouthwashes. Once vaccines became available, they saw widespread adoption amongst dentists, even before state and federal mandates. By the second quarter of 2021, over 90% of dentists had received at least one vaccination shot for COVID-19.

Patients also view dentists as valuable sources of information about their overall health in addition to their oral health. Two-thirds of dentists reported receiving questions from patients about the COVID-19 vaccine (PDF), according to the ADA. 

Dentists rose to the occasion, with over 80% reported feeling prepared for these discussions and 95% believing it was important to have such discussions with patients.

What did we learn from COVID-19?

Here are three key takeaways for you and your practice as you look to the future.

  • Encourage group clients to choose plans that truly meet their needs. A “Cadillac” insurance plan can be an attractive proposition for you and your clients, but it may be more coverage than they need. Conversely, in periods of economic uncertainty, individuals may decide that they should forego dental insurance entirely, but this can lead to small issues going untreated and becoming major ones. Helping your group and individual clients identify a plan that fits their needs (and their wallets) early on can go a long way towards keeping them healthy and happy no matter the economic forecast.
  • Foster relationships with individual clients that are about more than just sales. One thing COVID-19 showed was that in the face of uncertainty, people were desperate for answers. As an insurance industry expert, you can be well-suited to advise your clients and help them identify their needs, choose a plan that fits and seek care. Being able to offer advice on wellness and on current topics, such as the safety of vaccines, can go a long way towards building lasting relationships with your clients.
  • Have a resiliency plan in mind in case of an economic downturn.  The pandemic demonstrated that massive disruptions to the way we do business and live our lives aren’t just a possibility but an inevitability. Even if we don’t see another global pandemic within our lifetimes, there will undoubtedly be more localized disruptions from natural disasters like hurricanes, major storms and wildfires. Diversifying your client base (such as by selling to individuals if you currently focus on group clients) can help you to weather periods of economic uncertainty.

The intelligent future of dental insurance

First, let’s set the record straight: Artificial intelligence, or AI, in the dental industry doesn’t mean your dentist will be replaced by a robot. (Although, yes, a robot dentist might be kind of awesome.)

Instead, for both dentists and insurance companies, AI technology will bring accuracy, consistency and efficiency to a new level. And the good news is that this futuristic technology is here now.

What is artificial intelligence, anyway?

While the technology is complicated, the idea behind it is simple: AI uses computer software to analyze large sets of information and find patterns in them. As it gathers more and more information, it gradually learns to assess situations and then make informed decisions or predict outcomes.

So what does artificial intelligence mean for the dental industry?

When a patient visits the dentist for to receive treatment for a dental issue, two things must occur. First, the dentist must determine the appropriate procedure and submit a claim to the insurance company. Second, the insurance company must determine whether the dentist’s claim is valid and the procedure will be covered.

For both dentists and insurers, inconsistency and disagreements during this process can cause frustration and delays, which can in turn lead to frustration and delays in treatment for your clients.

Here’s how AI can help.

AI can make quick, impartial decisions

In many cases, AI can analyze data far more quickly and accurately than a person can, and can act as a second opinion. One of the most promising applications for AI is analyzing oral imagery, or as they’re more commonly known, x‑rays.

“When dentists make diagnostic decisions, there are clear-cut rules,” said Dr. Daniel Croley, Delta Dental’s chief dental officer. “There are clinical rules that say, ‘This is decay,’ or ‘This is periodontal disease.’ However, that’s also open to some interpretation, and dentists have different levels of aggression when they want to treat disease.”

AI analyzes x‑rays to bring consistency and reliability to decision making, Croley said.

AI can help eliminate fraud

Certainly, most dentists are ethical and want to provide only appropriate treatment for their patients. Still, insurers have to watch out for those few bad actors who abuse the system to help ensure dental care remains safe, effective, available and affordable for your clients.

For questionable claims, insurance companies have teams of dentists available to review claims and the accompanying x‑rays for fraud. But the volume of claims insurers receive (Delta Dental processed more than 34 million claims in 2020), makes manually reviewing every claim for fraud impossible.

AI can help dramatically expand insurers’ ability to detect fraud. By being able to examine and compare thousands of x‑rays, AI can quickly detect abuse such as resubmission fraud, where a dentist uses the same x‑ray to submit multiple claims, and overdiagnosis. (It can also identify honest errors, such as when a dentist mistakenly submits the wrong image.)

Because AI can retain vast amounts of information and compare it instantly, Croley said, it can identify potential fraud much more easily than a person can.

“It will be able to not only to review reports like we do to determine how a certain procedure was done,” Croley said, “but it can also look at the x‑ray that was submitted with it and say, ‘Hey, this was submitted last year for another patient.’ AI will be able to recognize that and learn as it as it goes along.”

It’s for this reason that Croley believes fraud detection is emerging as one of the leading uses for AI in dentistry right now.

This ability to detect fraud quickly and accurately is a win for everyone. It protects insurance companies from dishonest dentists and conversely ensures that ethical dentists are treated fairly by insurers when they submit claims. This trust and efficiency will in turn inspire confidence for your clients.

“We only want to have quality dentists and dentists who deliver quality care in our network,” Croley said. “What AI will help us do is to monitor our network very closely, develop appropriate oversight plans and then take action when necessary. And I think how that manifests for our members is more confidence in the dentists that are endorsed by Delta Dental as network providers.”

The future for AI in dental insurance looks bright

AI is still an emerging and evolving technology, so its full promise hasn’t been realized, and there are still challenges that must be overcome. For instance, many states require a licensed dentist to be involved in any review of a dental claim.

“There’s still a lot of rules around benefit determination at the state level,” Croley said, “but once regulation starts to keep up with the technology, we may see some of that evolve from a regulatory standpoint.”

Still, Croley is optimistic about AI’s potential and what it will mean for your clients. He believes AI will enable Delta Dental to improve the quality of treatment that its dentists deliver and members receive. This in turn will increase members’ confidence in Delta Dental.

“This is what I’m excited about,” Croley said.” People trust us to do the right thing, and AI will enhance the level of trust that they have with us.”

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