'$648 for 15 minutes at my dentist'

Good health is a prized possession and generally affordable, even for those without private insurance. But dental health is in another category entirely.

John Goss, associate professor at the University of Canberra, wrote in The Conversation recently that out-of-pocket costs had hit $240 per person per year. Even those with private health insurance still paid 46 per cent of dental fees charged, he said, adding that many people without insurance avoided the dentist altogether.

“Some 27 per cent of the bottom fifth of the population, who are most disadvantaged, delayed or did not see a dentist when they should have in 2016-17 due to the cost,” he said.

Dental care is a pressure point for all, but particularly for older Australians who generally experience more problems with teeth and gums.

YourLifeChoices member Derek* shared his concerns about the cost of dental procedures and we asked for a response from the Australian Dental Association (ADA).

Derek wrote: “I visited my local dentist earlier this week and after 15 minutes of treatment, I was billed $648. This consisted of ‘four adhesive restorations’ in which a resin was applied to four teeth.

“This charge (4 x $162) for 15 minutes’ work smacks of extortion, equating to a charge of around $2600 per hour, with only a few drops of resin being used in the process.”

Derek says he is on a part-pension, receiving $650 per fortnight, and asked YourLifeChoices to investigate.

To further complicate matters, Derek said he was told by his dentist that individual health funds set the charges, not the dentist. Further inquiries with his health fund put that responsibility on individual dentists.

“I then called my dentist and advised them of my health fund’s comments and was told that if I was a patient without health fund membership, then the dentist would set the charges. However, when a patient belongs to a health fund, the provider (dentist) uses a figure supplied by the individual health fund. I found this difficult to understand, but was assured that this is how the system works!”

A spokesperson for the Consumer Health Forum told YourLifeChoices its general understanding was that dentists set their fees and the health fund decided on the rebate, except when funds had a contractual arrangement with individual dentists.

 “At the end of the day,” said Derek, “being charged $648 for 15 minutes of my dentist’s time smacks of extortion – no matter whether the patient is entitled to a rebate or not!!”

Deputy CEO general manager-policy, for the ADA, Eithne Irving, provided the following statement: “It’s very difficult to respond to a comment from a patient about the cost involved in dental treatment without someone speaking to the dentist involved and understanding a bit more about the case.

“Some ADA branches do offer a mediation service to patients if the consumer is interested.

“We always recommend to patients that they speak to the dentist about the costs if they have any concerns (not the receptionist). We also recommend that they ask for an estimate up front so that they don’t get a shock.

“Unfortunately, while the time may not seem very long in comparison to the charge, the costs of infection control are quite extensive. After the patient left the treatment room, all the equipment (chair, mirrors, lights etc have to be cleaned, the instruments cleaned and sterilized, so there is a lot more to it than just the time spent in the chair.

“I would suggest that the patient speak to the dentists involved and see if there is any explanation. I would also encourage her/him to seek a quote in future for any proposed treatment and shop around to see if they can get the treatment cheaper somewhere else.”

* Not his real name

Is the cost of dental treatment a concern for you? Have you put off treatment because you can’t afford it? Has that affected your general health?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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