Smiles all round

The benefits of dental plans go beyond employees’ teeth. Sam Barrett finds out more

Smile

Once regarded simply as a way to help employees access a dentist, dental plans are evolving into an important part of an organisation’s health and wellbeing programme. And, while they are highly appreciated by employees, the potential return on these plans can make a finance director smile too.

There is certainly plenty of research to show a connection between oral health and general health. Gum disease has been linked to an increased risk of a variety of health conditions,including stroke, diabetes and heart disease. 

There is also evidence that, by treating oral health problems, these risks can be reduced. For example, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine – Impact of periodontal therapy on general health: evidence from insurance data for five systemic conditions – treatment for gum disease reduced the healthcare costs as well as the amount of time spent in hospital for people with conditions including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. It also reduced the risk of premature birth in pregnant women. 

This understanding of how oral health affects general health is filtering through to the workplace. For example, in Denplan’s Health and Wellbeing Benefits Survey 2014, 84 per cent of employers with a dental plan said they believed it enhanced employee wellbeing. 

“There’s much greater awareness of the link between oral health and general health now,” says Denplan head of corporate Pam Whelan. “With employees appreciating the broader health benefits of a trip to the dentist, employers now see a dental plan as an important part of their health and wellbeing strategy.”   

Sales drivers

Partly as a result of this link with general health and wellbeing, sales of dental plans have risen steadily over the past few years. Figures from Laing & Buisson’s Health Cover UK Market Report show that the number of people with dental insurance increased by 4.6 per cent in 2013 following a rise of 2.5 per cent in 2012. The report also noted that, with just over 1 per cent of the UK population covered by dental insurance, there was still plenty of scope for corporate growth.

These figures are no surprise to Cigna UK Healthcare product manager Yvonne Gleeson. 

“We’ve seen annual growth in the market of between 5 and 10 per cent over the past couple of years and we expect this to continue,” she says. “The link between oral health and general health is a key driver but we still see employers introducing dental plans to help employees cover the cost of visiting the dentist.” 

For example, Cigna’s research found that nearly a quarter of employers believe that staff struggle to afford the cost of private dental treatment.

Money comes into the equation in another way, too. PMI Health Group compliance director Mike Blake reports seeing interest in dental plans pick up as a result of the improving economy. 

“When budgets were tight, low-cost cash plans sold really well. But now there’s a bit more money around, employers are happy to spend a bit more on employee health and wellbeing. Dental plans fit the bill,” he says.

This is not surprising as plans are highly valued by employees, often appearing in the top three benefits in staff surveys. Furthermore, the appeal of a dental plan can rub off on the employer. Cigna found that 33 per cent of employees felt more positively towards their employer when it offered a dental plan. 

This perception of dental plans – and the employers that offer them –could be an increasingly powerful tool as the economy continues to pick up. 

“Employers need to offer benefits that help them to attract and retain key personnel,” says Blake. “The unemployment rate is dropping  and competition is heating up in recruitment.”

The advice market is also making sales easier. Bupa UK corporate director Patrick Watt says: “Intermediaries are more comfortable talking to employers about dental plans but we’ve also seen a growth in flex benefits off the back of pensions auto-enrolment. 

“Employers are investing in platform technology for their pensions and then considering what other benefits they can offer.” 

Supporting employers

Just as the reasons for purchasing dental insurance are evolving, so are the plans themselves. To make benefits stretch further and in recognition of the growth in demand for cosmetic treatment, as well as the fact that sometimes treatments are not covered by a plan’s benefit schedule, several insurers now offer members a discount.

For example, Denplan offers varying levels of discount to employees using one of the 2,000 dentists in its discount network. Cigna also offers preferential rates through its Healthy Discounts feature, giving members a 20 per cent saving on all private treatment costs at more than 400 dentists around the UK. 

“We introduced this to address the affordability issue and to encourage people to look after their teeth,” says Gleeson.  

Dental insurance providers are also responding to another trend in the workplace – reducing absence. While most employers will allow staff time off to see the dentist, where this is a long distance from the workplace it can seriously eat into the working day. To resolve this, insurers will work with dental practices to ensure they can support a client’s needs. 

Whelan says: “We’d speak to local practices to encourage them to open outside normal office hours. This enables employees to see the dentist without having to take much time off.” 

Some employers are looking at different ways to provide their staff with access to dental treatment. For example, Watt says he has seen an increase in the number of employers approaching his company about putting a dental clinic on site. “It’s mainly large employers or law firms and investment companies in the City but more employers are recognising the convenience of having this service within the office,” he says.

Cost analysis

While dental plans may make employees smile, they can also be one of the most cost-effective health and well-being benefits. “Everyone needs to see the dentist at least once a year so you get a good level of engagement from employees with dental plans,” says Blake. 

The cost for this level of engagement need not be high, either. For example, Cigna’s Denta Care level three plan is comprehensive and costs just over £230 a year for groups of 10-49 employees and less than £200 for larger employers. However, an entry level plan such as its Oral Health level 1, which covers NHS treatment, comes in at less than £5 a month.

Given that it is common to offer dental plans on a voluntary basis, especially through flex schemes, it is possible for employers to squeeze the cost of providing access to cover to the bone if required.

Insurers are also keen to drive up the value to employers from offering dental plans. For example, Denplan’s Whelan is looking to provide more management information to employers so that they can see details on usage and develop ways to increase it. 

She says: “I’m disappointed if a flex scheme has take-up of less than 20 per cent. Where take-up is lower than expected, or people with plans aren’t claiming, we’ll look to tweak the communications programme to change behaviours. 

“Once employees understand the value, they really do appreciate the cover.” 

Healthcare cash plans and dental cover

Healthcare cash plans are an alternative way to provide employees with dental benefit, with this and the optical benefit often the key reasons for taking out cover. “Dental is one of our most popular claimed benefits,” says Westfield Health executive director for sales and marketing Paul Shires. “An average of eight out of every 10 policyholders submit a claim every year.”

However, while a cash plan can match the dental cover available on some of the lower-cost insurance schemes – because it also provides other health benefits such as optical and physiotherapy – it falls short of the cover available on the higher-level schemes. For example, the top level of cover on Simplyhealth’s Core Cash plan provides £250 of dental benefit for £6 a week. Its Executive plan tops this, giving £400 of benefit for £10 a week.

While the cash plan providers are keen to stick with a diversified portfolio of benefits, many have recognised there is demand for both products and will tailor their plans to sit alongside dental insurance. For some, this is an option only for large organisations, but a handful, including Westfield Health and BHSF, will offer bespoke plans for much smaller groups. For example, Westfield’s Mosaic plan extends as low as 20 employees.

Sometimes the push comes from the dental insurer. At Denplan, being owned by Simplyhealth means there is room to tweak benefits where required. Pam Whelan, head of corporate at Denplan, says: “If an employer wants to offer employees dental insurance and a cash plan, we adjust the benefits, perhaps removing the dental cover from the cash plan, to ensure there’s no overlap.”

Top health and wellbeing benefits

Health insurance

46%

Dental insurance / treatment

26%

Onsite gym / exercise classes

19%

Free fruit / healthy snacks

19%

Company-paid health cash plan

16%

 Source: Bupa, survey conducted among 4,000 employed UK adults and 1,000 employers of higher managerial level in November 2014 by OnePoll