How in the World Does Dental Insurance Work?

Let’s talk about annual maximums.

The difference between an annual maximum and a deductible is arguably the most significant distinction between a typical dental insurance plan and a typical medical insurance plan, especially when it comes to your wallet.

It is important to note that many of the aspects of dental and medical coverage discussed in this article do not pertain to Medicaid insurance. Medicaid insurance operates differently (even though in North Carolina it does cover medical and dental, for children AND adults). We will discuss Medicaid specifically in a future post.

Additionally, this blog post should not be taken as medical or dental advice. When considering personal care and the cost of that care, consult your provider and insurance company to ensure that you fully understand all costs associated with different treatment options.

A traditional medical insurance plan usually includes what’s known as a deductible. If your deductible is $1,000, for example, once you reach $1,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses (meaning dollars that you, not your insurance company, pay for covered medical procedures), your insurance company pays 100 percent of in-plan procedures for the rest of your annual insurance period.

Dental insurance generally works in the opposite manner. Most dental plans have “annual maximums,” not deductibles. With a maximum of $1,000, once you reach $1,000 in expenses that the insurance company has paid, you as the individual are responsible for 100 percent of your oral health care costs for the remainder of the contract year.

If you were to enroll in a dental insurance plan today, it may look something like this:

Services Coverage
Type 1, Preventive
Oral exams (1 per 6-month period)
Cleanings (1 per 6-month period)
Bitewing x-rays (1 per 12-month period)
100% covered by insurer, up to contract year maximum
Type 2, Basic services
Full mouth x-rays
Periodontal maintenance
Injection of antibiotic drugs
80% covered by insurer, up to contract year maximum
Type 3, Major Services
Simple and Surgical Extractions
Oral Surgery
Periodontics and Periodontal Surgery
50% covered by insurer, up to contract year maximum
Annual Contract Year Maximum $1,000


On first glance, the tiered system of dental insurance clearly incentivizes regular preventive care. This is good, because nearly all dental disease can be entirely prevented, and regular visits to an oral health care provider are important steps in warding off cavities and gum disease.

On the other hand, however, what happens when you do experience more serious dental issues? Take a scenario where an old cavity filling fails, a new cavity forms underneath the failed filling, and you now need a root canal.

A single root canal on average will cost between $700 and $1,400, depending on the tooth requiring treatment and varying by location and provider. Once you receive a root canal you will also need a crown — an additional $800 – $1,500, depending on the crown material.

Say you end up right in the middle of those cost ranges: $1,050 for the root canal and $1,150 for the crown. Both are Type 3 procedures under the hypothetical insurance coverage above, meaning the insurance company will pay for 50 percent and you will be responsible for the other 50 percent. For both procedures, the total cost would be $2,200.

But don’t forget the annual maximum. The insurance company only pays $1,000 (assuming no other costs have been paid by the insurance company prior to your root canal) and you would be responsible for the additional $1,200. And if you need any other work done for the rest of the contract year, you will pay 100 percent of the cost.

That is a large out of pocket cost for someone who has insurance!

Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as increasing the amount an insurance company pays for. More extensive policies would cost more and would quickly become more expensive than would make sense for most individuals who do not experience severe oral disease.

Dental insurance poses a complex question — how do we keep insurance costs low enough to incentivize people to: 1) get insurance; and 2) use that insurance to receive regular care, without leaving those with more severe needs hanging out to dry?

On the other hand, how do we create a structure where people with severe needs can see those needs met without crippling bills, while simultaneously keeping costs low for preventive care?

Neglect absolutely leads to tooth decay, gum disease, and eventually more expensive treatments. Some may argue that you reap what you sow, but those of us at NCOHC believe that everyone, with no exceptions, should be able to access quality, affordable oral health care.

It is also important to consider the fact that people can end up with severe dental needs by no fault of their own. In a case like mine, your loyal NCOHC blog author, you could end up on the wrong end of a golf club in high school and need years of surgeries and restorative work to get your two front teeth back.

My case is an example of the stark difference between dental and medical insurance. I was fortunate enough to have great medical insurance through my mother’s state employee health plan, which at the time included a clause for “accidental dental” needs (an uncommon clause in medical insurance). All of my countless dental visits for root canals, bone grafts, restorative work, surgeries, implants… (the list goes on and on) were entirely covered by medical insurance once we reached our deductible.

Our luck was rare. If all of that work had instead been covered by dental insurance, which would be the common scenario, we would have paid tens of thousands of dollars after reaching our $1,000 annual maximum.

At NCOHC, we are curious about your thoughts as a reader. We truly believe that solutions to the biggest problems will be discovered through collaboration, and we want you to be a part of it! Have an idea, a thought, or a question about the future of dental insurance? Click here and let us know!

NCOHC is a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation. To get involved, find out more information, and to stay up to date, head over to NC4Change to sign up for our newsletter and see what events and other opportunities are on the horizon.


A Conversation with Public Health Expert Extraordinaire, Dr. Rhonda Stephens

Dr. Rhonda Stephens, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health Oral Health Section’s Dental Public Health Residency Director, recently became the newest Dental Public Health Diplomate in North Carolina. A dedicated public health specialist, Dr. Stephens is well-known in the world of North Carolina dental public health for her dedication to improving the oral health status of all North Carolinians.

We sat down with Dr. Stephens to discuss her role in the Oral Health Section, access to care, and what it means to be a Dental Public Health Diplomate.

What do you do in your current position in the Department of Health and Human Services Oral Health Section?

This may be a long answer because my role has shifted quite a bit. I started off with the general title of a Public Health Dentist Supervisor, but I had many responsibilities under that: supervising some of our public health dental hygienists in the field, supervising our four program managers who are responsible for developing the programs that we implement in the field, and managing our grants.

In the last year or so I have shifted to doing all of that, except no longer supervising field staff, and I took on additional roles and responsibilities with our Dental Public Health Residency training program. I am now the Residency Director and will continue managing grants, in addition to temporarily still supervising our program managers.

Why did you choose a career in public health?

That’s a story that I tell quite often. I practiced in Federally Qualified Health Centers for 11 years as a dental director. That’s a safety-net setting, right, and we’re typically seeing the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable. It felt like a revolving door of the same issues day in and day out, and that I was only making an impact one person at a time, if that.

I think by about 2012 I felt like there had to be a better way — a way to impact change on a broader scale. So, I went back for my Master’s in Public Health while I worked part-time clinically, and then I knew from there that I wanted to move on to a more administrative role in dentistry.

You recently became an American Board of Dental Public Health Diplomate. What is a diplomate, and why did you pursue this distinction?

Each of the specialties in dentistry — like orthodontics, oral maxillofacial surgery, dental public health — all of these specialties require specialty training, and then there’s the opportunity to become certified as diplomates.

You can get any specialty training and opt not to become certified. For me, being certified was more of a personal professional desire, to get that final stamp or seal of approval. It’s a standardized test just like any standardized test, and it says that you have met the requirements established by the particular specialty board.

In dental public health, you can easily be just as qualified of a dental public health practitioner by having gone through a residency and not getting certified; but I wanted to be at the top of my professional game, having that seal of official approval.

Broadly, outside of my job, there isn’t yet a clear understanding among employers — whether its government employers, institutions, nonprofits — about the significance or the value of having the certification. But I wanted to be at that level so when employers do start to value the certification, I’m already there.

My job as the Dental Public Health Residency Director is the only role within our program that requires the certification. I’m fortunate that we have the residency, otherwise there honestly wouldn’t be a role for me to step into. It would just be an extra certification that I just happen to have.

Could you tell me a bit more about the role that dental public health plays within the broader network of dental professionals?

I’ll admit, many of our colleagues in dentistry don’t understand what it means exactly. Public health is very different than understanding how to provide clinical care to a patient. You’re focused on prevention first and foremost. Prevention at a community or population level.

So, some of the things that a clinician, a dental clinician, might do for a patient one-on-one in a clinical setting, aren’t actually effective at a population level. Going through the specialty training for dental public health helps you to understand that.

It’s a little-known specialty, like I said even within our own dental community. Then, more broadly, the general public really has no idea what dental public health specialists do. But we’re here, behind the scenes, working to help people prevent diseases that warrant them going in for emergency and urgent care.

I don’t know the raw numbers, but North Carolina in general seems to be a Mecca for dental public health specialists. We have quite a few who have played a major role in dental public health in North Carolina and beyond at some point. I think North Carolina is unique in a lot of aspects when it comes to dental public health.

NCOHC is a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation. To get involved, find out more information, and to stay up to date, head over to NC4Change to sign up for our newsletter and see what events and other opportunities are on the horizon.


Introducing Our New Associate Director, Crystal Adams

We are thrilled to introduce the newest member of the NCOHC team! Crystal Adams, a lifelong advocate for access and equity in oral health care, will join us as our Associate Director.

Crystal is a career educator, transitioning to NCOHC from her position as department head of Catawba Valley Community College’s (CVCC) dental hygiene program. Over the course of her career at CVCC, Crystal launched a dental assisting program, a Community Dental Health Coordinator program, and a school-based program allowing dental hygiene students to care for middle school-aged children in Alexander County.

Crystal brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experience in education, paired with years of statewide advocacy and representation on committees like the North Carolina Dental Society Council on Prevention and Oral Health. She is also the former president of the North Carolina Dental Hygienists’ Association (NCDHA).

We recently sat down with Crystal to talk about her career and experience in oral health, and her vision for increasing access and equity in North Carolina.

Can you tell us a bit about your career path in the dental field?

I started in dentistry as a dental assistant. My passion kept getting stronger and stronger, and I felt like I wanted to grow, so I went back to dental hygiene school. After working as a dental assistant for four years and a hygienist for almost ten years, I felt like there was something inside of me that I could share.

I love people — I love helping people. I started working in education to share my passion about oral health care. I wanted to help new graduates prepare for the dental field, and I felt like my experience as a dental assistant and a dental hygienist allowed me to go in and share my technical skills, as well as my personal knowledge working with patients.

I feel like everything begins with education, no matter what. And, with NCOHC, I am excited to work on initiatives and programs to ensure that dental literacy is continued, to help people see that they need that overall health, and that their teeth are part of their bodies!

Why did you choose a career in dentistry in the first place?

I always knew that I wanted to go into the health field. I did not have any dental care until I was 16 years old. Luckily, my family had great genes, so I was one of those lucky people who didn’t have a lot of dental issues.

Now, when I look back, I see that my personal story can help people. Especially when people come in and say, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t been to the dentist. I focused on my family, I focused on my children, and now I’m here and my mouth is a mess.” I have that personal story to share.

What is your vision for North Carolina’s oral health future?

I was born and raised in North Carolina, and I want to see my neighbors, my friends, my family throughout the state get the care that they need. My vision starts with a quality workforce. First, making sure that our stakeholders and partners are on board so that we’re all working toward the same goal. Everybody’s goal in dentistry is hopefully to help our residents in North Carolina to improve their oral health.

I envision collaboration with our stakeholders to ensure that we have a quality workforce delivering equitable oral health care to the residents of North Carolina. Working on the programs that I did at CVCC, I feel like a lot ties into the initiatives, vision, and mission of the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative.

NCOHC, a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, works to advance systems-level changes, improving the overall health and well-being of all North Carolinians by increasing access and equity in care. To stay up-to-date and get involved, join us today as a North Carolinian for Change.