Klett: Grad students have cavities, too

Sometime last July, I became aware of a deep, sustained pain in the left side of my mouth.

Causing massive headaches for up to three hours whenever I ate, I deduced that there was something wrong with my tooth. Given to hereditarily weak teeth, employer dental coverage became a deal-breaker once I graduated high school. Of course, the allure of Yale for graduate work was overriding, to put it lightly, and never did it occur to me that Yale might provide anything but the best possible dental insurance for its students. Unfortunately, in my time of need, what I found was a “discount plan” — Yale’s sole option for graduate student dental care.

The discount plan offered by Yale comes via a broker (called Co-Health) that offers access to providers enrolled with Aetna Health Corporation — a multinational business based out of Hartford, yet with relatively few locations in southern Connecticut. Not owning a car, I’ve been forced to choose between only two providers in New Haven — both of which are located on the same block of Chapel Street. Quality of care in this case is moot, as, apparently, beggars can’t be choosers.

Most important, following a consultation I immediately noticed the diminishing returns of this discount plan. In one example, a two-surface filling (as one might require for an incisor) receives a discount of nearly 60 percent, bringing the out-of-pocket cost from $210 to $90. By contrast, a three-surface filling of white enamel (cheaper amalgam fillings are not offered) receives only a 25 percent discount, bringing the out-of-pocket from $260 to $200; a four-surface at $300 becomes $250, equating to a 16 percent discount.

When a cavity goes undetected and untreated, damage may reach the root, requiring a root canal. This was the prescription for my pain. A three-step, often four-visit process, a root canal consists of removing the roots and the head of the ailing tooth, installing a metal “post” into the base of the tooth, and finally adhering a porcelain (or handsome gold) crown modeled after the original. The three phases were quoted at $950, $320 and $1120, respectively, with discounted prices amounting to $725, $230 and $900. These discounts amount to 15 percent, 20 percent and topping-out around 30 percent, with my total out-of-pocket for one root canal coming to $1855 — roughly three and a half weeks of my monthly income.

From what I understand of insurance, it is meant to shelter the patient from massive unforeseen financial burdens such as a root canal. Yale’s discount plan does exactly the opposite, cutting some routine costs but leaving graduate students almost equally exposed to emergency costs.

Joseph Klett is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Sociology.

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