Feature – Staff smile at dental perks

If you read nothing else, read this …

• The shrinking number of NHS dentists means more staff are likely to face high bills for private treatment. • Employees highlight help with dental and optical costs as a preferred benefit. Some providers offer dental and optical-only healthcare cash plans. • Although cash plans do not offer all of the same benefits as private medical insurance, they are an affordable alternative for employers that want to provide a benefit for all employees.

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The widespread struggle to find an NHS dentist has helped to inject new life in to healthcare cash plans that cover the cost of dental bills. Employee demand has led to the development of a new range of products that restrict cover to dental and optical treatments. Healthcare cash plans are increasingly valued by both employers and employees because of the growing number of patients who are forced to face painful private dental bills, a situation that could worsen if plans for new NHS dentist contracts goes ahead and triggers a reallocation of NHS resources.

Even employees that are lucky enough to be registered with an NHS dentist can benefit from a cash plan because treatment is only free to a minority of patients. Healthcare cash plans, however, reimburse employees whether their treatment is on the NHS or private. According to research by cash plan provider HSA, the cost of a basic examination on the NHS is a relatively painless £5.64 but at a private practice it can range from £25 to £45. Whereas a large filling costs £15.52 on the NHS, but privately you can expect to pay £50 to £95.

So a course of treatment on the NHS can still erode your savings significantly, although it is capped at £378 (or £354 in Wales). These costs would all be covered by a cash plan, although there are annual limits depending on premiums paid. Mike Govier, director of benefits firm Personal Group Benefits, says increased employee demand has prompted employers to take a keener interest in both dental and optical benefits. While most organisations offer healthcare cash plans on a voluntary basis, with employees benefiting from a discount of between 10% and 30% on normal premiums, other employers choose to cover the cost of the premiums themselves.

Distribution company MYK Logistics, for example, covers the full cost of a dental and optical-only plan from provider Pinnacle, as a key part of its recruitment package. It is not the only organisation to do so. Petrol giant Total added HSA’s healthcare cash plans to its benefits package because employees specifically requested help with dental and eye care costs. And Zurich Financial Services was also prompted to add a plan from provider The Hospital Saturday Fund to its flexible benefits package for similar reasons.

Many employers that offer private medical insurance to their top management are turning to cash plans as an affordable way to embrace the needs of employees further down the ranks. Simon Wheeler of cash plan provider Pinnacle, explains: "Our stripped-down healthcare cash plan with just dental and optical benefits is very popular. These benefits tend to be claimed more than any other on any healthcare cash plan."

Pared-down healthcare cash plans offer higher annual limits for dental and eye claims than standard plans which also cover other health costs. Stephen Duff, sales and marketing director of The Hospital Saturday Fund, believes that cash plans can give employees more confidence to see their dentist regularly, which benefits employers because staff can nip problems in the bud. "I am always saying that the real pain is not in the dentist’s chair, it’s at the reception desk. If someone on an average income is faced with a bill for £300, it can be a struggle. A cash plan can help."