It seems like dental care is often forgot about when it comes to health care. I’ve been fortunate myself not to need anything other than braces and a few cavities filled during my teen years, but I’ve known others who have needed more serious work done, and understand that not taking care of your teeth can cause excruciating pain and have severe health consequences.
For a long time, dental care remained largely outside of the third party payer system, and most dentists were perfectly capable of giving real prices to patients. Insurance has only in recent years begun to become a part of dental care, but their arrival has caused the same problems self-pay patients usually experience when they get other health care, mainly a lack of transparent prices and inflated charges well beyond what insurers pay. On the plus side, few dentists offices are confused by the mere idea of paying directly for care, unlike many doctor’s offices that are confused by the concept.
Just as a number of companies, web sites, and organizations have sprung up in recent years to help self-pay patients obtain reasonable prices for physician services, such as PricePain.com and DocCost.com, it looks like people are starting to look at dental care as another health care field that would benefit from clear and fair prices.
I recently learned about a company called Brighter.com, a Los Angeles-area startup that has essentially built a network of doctors that will provide deep discounts to patients that pay cash for dental care.
The model is fairly simple – dentists sign up with Brighter.com (about 600 so far in the Los Angeles area) and list the prices they are willing to perform various services at. Patients can find local dentists using the search tool, which asks for both zip code and the service sought. The services are pretty self-explanatory, such as checkup and cleaning, cavity fillings, root canals, and braces.
I checked out the offerings, and they definitely appear to be able to save patients a lot of money. Using the zip code 90024 (Westwood, I think, where UCLA is) and ‘root canal’ for the service came up with 32 results ranging from $499 to $1,495 for self-pay patients. The ‘list’ prices given for these doctors ranged from about $800 to as high as $2,450.
Brighter.com doesn’t just provide pricing information, it also includes background information on each dentist. For example the profile for Dr. Parnaz Aurastah, who gave a price of $673 (normally $900) for a root canal, tells me that she has been in practice for 8 years, has a general dentistry practice, got her dental degree from UCLA in 2005, and she (or at least someone on staff) speaks English, Farsi, German, Spanish, and Turkish.
The site also offers Yelp reviews (4.5 out of 5, based on 11 patients) and Brighter.com does their own evaluation as well, based on three criteria: Experience and Reputation, Office Amenities, and Advanced Technologies. They use a five-star criteria as well, and Dr. Aurastah gets five out of five on the last two criteria and 4.5 for experience and reputation.
The profile also lists prices for other services, such as $89 for a checkup and cleaning and $107 for a cavity filling (savings off of ‘list’ prices of $283 and $135, respectively). But one of the best features of Brighter.com is the ability to see appointment availability and schedule online. So if anyone in the Los Angeles – Westwood area needs a root canal in the next few days, I can tell you that Dr. Aurasteh can see you at 2:30pm or 4pm tomorrow, and if that doesn’t work she can fit you in at those same times next Wednesday.
If those dates and times don’t work for you, it’s easy enough to go back to the initial search results, where Brighter.com conveniently includes appointment availability for all of the other dentists listed. Dr. Mehryar Ebrahimi, for example (New York University 2002, five out of five on Yelp, same on the Brighter.com rating), has plenty of availability on Thursday, and charges the same price as Dr. Aurasteh (normally $1,800 for a root canal). His profile also includes a video of him introducing you to his practice.
Brighter.com has been featured by several news outlets, here are some excerpts from a Santa Monica Daily Press story in July of this year:
In an era of high co-pays and deductibles for dental care, Brighter.com is a free one-stop shop for customers who don’t have dental insurance and even those who think their dental coverage is too high.
The website, which focuses on the Los Angeles area, now boasts thousands of customers, more than 500 dentists in Los Angeles, and 13 dentists in Santa Monica who use the website…
The website has a more direct approach to billing — customers pay the dentist directly — thereby cutting out the insurance companies who have to process payments, bill patients and file claims. That helps keep costs low…
Dentists have an incentive to join the website because it’s bringing patients who otherwise might not have gotten dental procedures or been able to afford dental care. They aren’t paid less through the website, but about the same as being paid by insurance…
The average savings on the appointments, to date, against the price of walking in off the street is more than 50 percent…
For example, a comprehensive exam, full series of X-rays, regular cleaning for an adult and cavity filling cost $234 compared to an average price of $458, according to the website.
Santa Monica resident Andy Jen… was sitting at a restaurant and saw a news piece on the website. Jen, who doesn’t have dental insurance, booked an appointment and got a check up, cleaning and X-ray package for $109. After that, he got a more extensive cleaning.
“I’ve had dental insurance in the past,” Jen said. “It’s always been a little bit of a mystery how much things cost and how much I’m going to be paying for it.”
While Brighter.com is currently only in the Los Angeles area, they are expanding. Hopefully they or someone with a similar model will be able to take this service nationwide, allowing self-pay patients to get the same or better prices for needed dental care that insurers pay.