My Dental Nightmare (and How to Avoid One Yourself)

My friends and family are very familiar with this phrase I’ve coined. The “dental nightmare” refers to the many troubles I’ve had, both physical and financial, concerning my teeth and dental insurance. My nightmare began exactly 1 year ago and didn’t end until this past month. Here’s why.

I’ll never forget that night last summer driving home from seeing the last Harry Potter movie in theaters. On the drive home, without warning, it felt like knives were stabbing at one of my teeth. The pain was so horrible that I couldn’t sleep at all that night, even after a few painkillers and frugal remedies. So even though I didn’t have dental insurance at the time, I called 1-800-Dentist to find a dentist in my area to take a look at me.

The dentist that was referred to me was located close by but I hadn’t heard anything about them. But the pain was so bad that I just went – which brings me to my first lesson point:

NEVER Trust a First Opinion

When I went to this dentist, the only good thing they were able to do for me was prescribe an antibiotic to kill an infection I had and some strong pain medication. Other than that, they were completely prepared to take me for a ride. Not only did they determine that my ailing tooth required a root canal; the X-ray apparently showed that I needed 2 more root canals in other teeth. The projected total cost of all of this work: upwards of $10,000. That figure alone was enough to multiply my pain.

Completely distraught, I called my parents (because yes, I still do that when I’m distraught) and they recommended that I see their current family dentist for a second opinion. And thank goodness that’s what I ended up doing. That second opinion ruled out the need for 2 other root canals, and possibly the need for a root canal altogether. Already, I was saving thousands and thousands of dollars.

Don’t Scrimp on Preventative Care

I won’t divulge how long it had been since my last checkup at the dentist, but let’s just say it had been too long. My new dentist found a lot of work that needed to be done in my mouth. He said that if I had been keeping up with regular checkups, it wouldn’t have gotten so bad, and so costly, but at that point, there was nothing I could do but go forward.

Tell the Dentist Your Financial Situation

After I found out what my problems were, I immediately asked the dentist what was the most pressing thing that needed to be taken care of that couldn’t wait. Unsurprisingly, it was the ailing tooth. He needed to get the decay out of there as soon as possible to try to prevent the need for a root canal. I could completely understand the pressing need for work there as it still felt like my heart was pounding in my tooth. (Isn’t mouth pain the worst?)

Then I told the doctor that I didn’t currently have insurance, so I wanted to just pay for what was necessary while I worked on getting insurance to cover my other problems. So we booked an appointment for a few days later to take care of the most pressing issue.

Pay in Cash and in Full

This is where I did something right. Once the appointment was over, I asked if there were any discounts offered for paying in full. It turned out that the receptionist was able to knock off 10% for paying in cash and in full. Luckily, I was prepared to do just that and saved 10% on those services. It didn’t make the services cheap by any means, but every little bit of savings counts.

Emergency Funds Actually Are Important

The other thing I had done right to prepare for this nightmare was that I had an emergency fund all set up and, well, funded. The pain I was going through was definitely an emergency and couldn’t wait, and luckily I had money set aside for just such an occurrence.

Get Insurance, but Read the Fine Print

So my next step was to get on getting dental insurance. I finally settled on a Delta Dental Plan that cost $50 a month (not horrible when you consider the amount of money I would have to shell out to take care of my dental problems). The plan completely covered preventive care (free checkups twice a year), and covered services like cavity fillings and root canals at 80%. Also, the plan stated that there was no waiting period for these services. I was super excited. This plan was going to help me take care of problems sooner rather than later, and I’d be covered. Or would I?

No, REALLY, Read the Fine Print

Once my dental insurance card came in and I was enrolled, I made an appointment to take care of a few fillings that needed to be done. I also got a routine cleaning which was heavily recommended. The receptionist took my card and told me that I should be covered. They would bill me and I’d receive it in the mail soon.

The day the bill came, I nearly had a heart attack. I supposedly owed $1,500 and insurance had only covered my routine cleaning. I was completely baffled, so of course the first thing I did was to call up Delta Dental.

After much arguing, I found out some devastating news. I hadn’t read the fine print as carefully as I thought I had. Cavity fillings and root canals were only covered after a 6 month waiting period for those who were not previously insured before applying for their insurance. If I had been insured before I started my plan, I would have been covered. But I wasn’t, so I had no choice but to accept the absurd and unexpected bill.

Sob Stories Are Sometimes Worthwhile

Since I had developed a good relationship with the receptionist (and since they were the “family dentist” and loved my mom), I decided to call them to tell them about my insurance problems. There was nothing she could do about the coverage of course, and they needed to get paid (lesson learned: the dentist is first and foremost a business). However, she wanted to do what she could to help. So she knocked off 10% for me and split my bill into 3 monthly payments to make the amount more manageable. It wasn’t enough to make me feel better, but it did slightly ease the panic that had come over me when I opened that bill.

Double Check Your Waiting Period

Ok, fast-forward to a couple of months ago. I was nearing the end of my waiting period when disaster stuck yet again. Even though I had finished those excruciating monthly payments, those dental demons were not done with me yet. On vacation (of course), the tooth that had caused me problems the year before exploded with pain. It was so torturous that even after taking several painkillers, I was in tears. And the morning after the pain hit, an entire side of my face was completely swollen. I looked like a lopsided chipmunk. Sound funny? Trust me, it wasn’t. I’d show you the pictures, but I wouldn’t want to scare you.

Anyway, I called the dentist immediately that next day. Since I was out of the state, they were able to prescribe me painkillers and antibiotics to nearby CVS. Upon hearing my symptoms, they said that I most likely needed that root canal now. The dentist’s previous attempts to help my nerve regenerate on its own had apparently been unsuccessful. (What a waste of money for THAT procedure, huh?) Anyway, they scheduled me an appointment for a root canal the day after my return.

(Editor’s note: I’ve removed a portion of this original article (and some related comments). While my goal was to share my entire story with you all, without divulging names, I’d rather just delete this section altogether since many commenters have expressed their fears about this anonymous receptionist getting into trouble. She is a very nice lady who has been very kind to me. And I didn’t reveal the identity of their office on purpose. I’d also just like to reiterate that I wrote this article to point out many mistakes I made, that I wish I didn’t make, to hopefully help others not end up in my boat!)

Where I Stand Now

So now that I’m through the dental nightmare (fingers crossed), I’m covered by insurance. But if I could go back, I’d do a lot of things differently. And while I couldn’t completely control what my teeth went through, there were a lot of things within my control that I could have done to lessen my physical and financial pain. Many lessons learned – and hopefully my experiences will help you avoid such a nightmare!

Have any “dental nightmares” of your own that you’d like to share? I’m extremely sympathetic. Please share any thoughts or further advice in the comments section below. Thanks for being a Tip Hero!

Photo credit: tommyvicious, hugged2death, Mcalatayud