September 16, 2012
In the dental profession, it is generally understood that dental benefits are merely a subsidy intended to defray the costs of treatment. Yet the terms and parameters of a benefits plan can have a strong influence on a patient’s treatment decisions. How often do you hear the question, “Is this going to be covered by my insurance?” Dental teams struggle trying to convince patients of the need for treatment when it is not covered under a benefits plan.
To provide the best possible care for your patients, your practice should aim to be patient-centered, not insurance-driven. If your office is too reliant dental insurance benefits, you could be putting your practice at risk. After all, it is the employers who select the insurance plan and level of benefits. In times of economic stress, employers must look at cutting costs in order to survive. The first place they look is at their expensive benefits programs. Dental insurance benefits are a costly component of group benefits packages and when companies experience economic downturns, they are often the first to be eliminated.
In choosing to accept assignment, you also create the perception that your office is acting as a benefits plan administrator. If the level of coverage suddenly changes at the employer level or if benefits are denied for a specific service, the patient might blame your office if they believe you control their benefits level.
One way to guard against these scenarios is to change your office from assignment to non-assignment. Change is challenging, so it is best done slowly and strategically with built in flexibility to accommodate all of your patients’ needs. Here is a 3-step plan to help guide you through the transition.
1. Establish flexible financial options and policies in your office. Focus on what you can offer patients by emphasizing the opportunities not the constraints. For instance, monthly payment plans at 0% interest for larger cases are often attractive to patients. Such interest-free financing is an excellent marketing tool and can make certain treatment plans more accessible and affordable.
Another way to accommodate your patient’s needs is by accepting monthly payments through pre-authorized credit card payments or direct debits.
2. Set a target date that is one year to 18 months in the future and start talking to your existing patients about the various financial options available. Place a sign at the front desk announcing the pending changes and the effective date. If you send account statements to existing patients, include an information insert with details of the changes.
When your patients come in for their regular appointments, talk to them about why you are making the changes and how they will affect them. During the new patient interview, discuss the financial options available and emphasize how easy it is for patients to receive the care they need. Reinforce the idea that dental benefits are a contract between the patient and their employer and that treatment recommendations are strictly part of the dentist-patient relationship. These strategies will allow your patients adequate time to adjust to the new payment policies.
3. Educate and inform your dental team. The entire dental team needs to believe in and support your new policies. For instance, members of staff should avoid prejudging a patient’s willingness or ability to pay for treatment. Such preconceptions generally have a negative effect on the outcome. You should discuss the new realities of becoming a non-assignment office with members of your staff well in advance of making the change. Address any preconceptions or concerns staff may have about the new policies.
Some dentists are concerned that patients may leave their practice if they become a non-assignment practice. Patients are adaptable as long as they are well informed and presented with alternatives. The strength of your relationship with patients will help them remain loyal. Help your patients become informed consumers and to make dentistry a priority in their purchasing decisions.
Moving your practice from assignment to non-assignment may appear to be daunting, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. You will protect your practice against the threat of financial loss during economic downturns while providing client-specific health care. The key is educating your patients and dental team while displaying flexibility and offering excellent customer service. Your patients will continue to be happy, willing to refer their friends and relatives, while you can enjoy a practice that has improved cash flow and fewer financial concerns.
If you wish to offer assignment as another option for your patients, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the words “assignment policy” in the subject line and I will be happy to send you a sample policy that you may implement in your office.