How does anyone afford dental treatment?

Updated 08/09/2022
How does anyone afford dental treatment?

Four in 10 Australians have delayed a trip to the dentist because of cost.

Time to read : 3 Minutes

With Covid restrictions well behind us, dentists are once again open for business and many of us are adding a checkup to our to-dos. 

Problem is, Covid was a pretty convenient excuse for avoiding the costs associated with the dentist chair. 

According to a Patient Experience Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020-21), around 32% of respondents who needed to see a dental professional delayed or did not see one in the previous 12 months. 15% of these reported that cost was the main reason for this. 

This leaves a significant group of us visiting the dentist less than once per year — and even then only for (inevitably expensive) problems.

How much does a dentist visit cost and how can you pay for it?

The Australian Government generally doesn’t cover the cost of dental services in the same way it covers other health services. Also, there are no standard fees for dentists, which means that out-of-pocket costs for patients can vary wildly

According to the Australian Dental Association, the average cost of a routine checkup and clean is $214 (although this can skyrocket to $296 in some areas). 

Eligible children aged 2-17 can claim up to $1,000 over two years for basic dental services, however this is usually only applicable if one or more members of their family is claiming the Family Tax Benefit or a parenting payment from Centrelink. 

What’s more, public dental services for adults are can sometimes be available for Pension Card holders or by referral. 

So that means there’s little to no free dental for the majority of Aussies. 

Does private health insurance cover the cost of dental?

The good news is that private health insurance covers some of the cost of dental treatment. But... dental cover and the amount you can get back varies wildly from policy to policy. 

  • Every health fund covers different services at different levels. This is where it literally pays to do your homework. The cheapest extras policies can offer anywhere between 60% to 100% back for a check-up.

  • All extras policies will cover general dental treatments - like a check-up, scale and clean - but major dental work and orthodontics tend to sit in more expensive policies.

  • Any dental work done at a hospital - such as wisdom teeth extraction - generally sits under hospital cover. This is different from extras and you'll need to take out both if you think you'll need to be put under.

  • Most health funds will have preferred providers - these are dentists who have an agreement with the health fund and generally give you higher rebates.

  • Bigger health funds like Bupa, HCF and nib have their own dental centres with higher rebates depending on your level of cover. Smaller funds may also have their own dental centres, but they tend to be nearer to where the insurer is based. For example, Westfund has a dental centre near their HQ in Lithgow, NSW.

Be aware: There are annual limits on how much you can claim back at the dentist. These are usually higher with more expensive levels of extras cover. Anything above this limit will be 100% out of pocket

Can you avoid bill shock at the dentist?

The first answer is the most obvious: regular check ups should help prevent issues before they get painful - and painfully expensive.

There's no one set way to avoid dental bills and it'll be different for everyone, but there's a few tactics that cane help.

1. Take advantage of free dental care, if you can.

The Child Dental Benefits Schedule can help reduce your family's costs at the dentist, as can eligible pensioner concessions cards. The Australian Dental Association estimates 35% of the population are eligible for some form of free dental care.

2. Compare dentists.

Always check how much the service will cost when booking a dental appointment. You can also get the item number of the service and then ring around other dentists to compare prices.

💡 TIP: check if your preferred dentist also has an agreement with your health fund. This may also help put more back into your pocket.

3. Compare private health insurance for dental.

As we've mentioned earlier, not all health insurance extras plans are made equal. There's even quite a lot of difference in dental coverage and rebates between similarly priced policies.

If dental's your number one priority, you can use our comparison tool to check. Take a look at the documentation for each policy and if you're still not sure, chat to one of our experts.

4. Budget for dental costs.

Even savvy consumers with good dental cover will face out-of-pocket costs. It doesn't hurt to squirrel away a bit of cash for those dental procedures, especially if you have kids nearing the age when they need orthodontic treatments like braces and retainers - usually around eight through to 16.

5. Explore payment plans.

If you don’t have an emergency fund ready to go for your dental work (because, you know, life…), many surgeries offer payment plans which allow you to pay for a procedure in instalments.

The bottom line

Taking care of your teeth is essential for good overall health and wellbeing but it's not cheap.

  • Be smart when it comes to picking a health insurance policy for dental.

  • A little bit of research can go a long way to keeping costs down. If you’re not sure how to proceed, ask a Compare Club health insurance expert for some free guidance^.

Go deeper:

The information contained on this web page is of general nature only and has been prepared without taking into consideration your objectives, needs and financial situation. You should check with a financial professional before making any decisions. Any opinions expressed within an article are those of the author and do not specifically reflect the views of Compare Club Australia Pty Ltd.

^Compare Club compares selected products from a panel of trusted insurers. We do not compare all products in the market.