Chew on this: one out of every 100 Yale students does not recommend the Yale Dental Plan. At least, that’s what you might think given the abysmally low sign-up rate for the university’s first student dental insurance program. As of last week, 140 students had enrolled in the plan, a figure that represents less than one percent of the total student body. University health officials have blamed this lack of interest on pre-existing coverage or confusion about the sign-up deadline, but the real reason may simply be that the new plan isn’t much better than no plan at all.
For years, undergraduate and graduate student groups have lobbied for dental insurance at Yale. Not all undergrads are covered by their parents, and most graduate students are either too old to be eligible for parental coverage or are too poor to afford their own policy. Access to such policies has become more important over the past decade as firmer links are established between good dental health and the prevention of such conditions as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These issues are of particular concern to graduate students, who will spend up to one-tenth of their life pursuing a higher degree. Add to this the fact that dental services are often so expensive that having a cavity filled may mean not being able to afford next month’s rent, and one begins to understand why University-sponsored student dental insurance is so important.
Yale’s new plan for students has been touted as a remedy for this situation. However a close examination of the policy suggests that the plan exists more as an effort to silence the voices of discontent than to provide a realistic solution to the student dental care problem. At a cost of $180 per year, the plan is advertised as “affordable,” yet the overall benefits are minimal. The policy only covers a maximum of $600 in dental fees per year, and many services are only partially discounted or not discounted at all.
What does this mean in terms of your coverage? Without the plan, preventative services such as a yearly cleaning and X-rays would cost you about $200. With the plan, which covers 80 percent of these services, you spend $220 ($40 out of pocket plus $180 for the premium). Thus, you actually end up $20 poorer with the plan than without it. Conversely, if you have a bad tooth year and need a crown and root canal (50 percent and 80 percent coverage, respectively), these services would cost you about $3,000 without the plan. However, since the plan has a maximum benefit of $600, you still will pay almost $2,600 with the plan. And this figure assumes that the insurance company deems your dental work “necessary” and “non-cosmetic.”
Some might argue that these problems are not unique to the Yale plan, and that most schools do not even provide such policies to students. This is not necessarily the case. Of the Ivies alone, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania offer dental insurance to their students, and the cost of these plans is as little as one-third of the Yale premium. In addition, the Harvard and Princeton plans do not impose a maximum benefit cap, and Princeton’s plan (which is not affiliated with a dental school) covers 100 percent of basic and at least 80 percent of major services.
As it stands, the Yale Student Dental Plan offers no real benefit to students. Most are better off paying for preventative services themselves, and would still be financially devastated by a cracked molar. This may explain why so few have taken the bait. A reasonable dental plan must take a student’s pocketbook into account, while providing sufficient coverage for major dental problems. Hopefully, by the time Yale makes such a plan available, we’ll still have the teeth left to bite.
David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.