Pulling Teeth With UCI’s Insurance

During my first year in college, I fell ill with a fever and severe headaches two nights before my first round of midterms. I didn’t know what to do — I was too sick to study, but not sick enough to postpone my tests. Considering my insurance only covered 80 percent of the cost of an emergency room visit, I opted for the home remedy of choking down some Advil and sleeping it off. When I finally saw my doctor, I found out that the debilitating disease I was facing was none other than dental caries, also known as tooth decay.
Unfortunately, UC Irvine does not offer dental benefits as part of its student health insurance plan. In fact, it is one of only two University of California campuses whose mandatory student health insurance does not include or provide the option to add dental benefits. UC Santa Barbara is the other UC that offers no dental benefits. I ended up going to a private dentist who determined that the pain and fever was the result of a decayed nerve that caused an infection in my gums. Left untreated, the infection could have spread to my blood stream, causing sepsis and ultimately death. Fortunately, I was treated soon enough to only need a prescription of antibiotics, a lovely root canal and the advice, “Next time, come to us sooner.”
In hindsight, my dentist’s advice is painfully obvious. If your tooth hurts, go to the dentist! But doing so wasn’t easy. Growing up, I hardly visited a dentist because my family had neither health nor dental insurance. I learned to keep toothaches to myself in order to prevent my mother from launching into a full-scale yelling attack about the cost of not brushing my teeth (though I did!). But after spending some $4,000 on maintenance and preventative care for my dirty mouth, I’ve learned that it’s far more costly to wait until your teeth are hurting (and likely rotting out).
Dental insurance, though costly, has immeasurable benefits. Currently, UCI offers dental care through their on-site dental clinic, providing comprehensive dental services at discounted prices. However, the cost of these dental services – even at their discounted rates – still remains unaffordable for many students. In fact, their costs are comparable to the care I receive from my private dentist, but without his dental freebies, such as fluoride treatments.
As students push off costly dental trips, they aggravate oral problems they may have, which may result in pain, an inability to eat, poor self-esteem and bad breath. The problems can even be long term. Research has demonstrated a direct relationship between periodontal disease (gum disease that is best treated with regular dental check-ups) and the risk of heart disease and stroke. Because poor oral health can have wide and far-reaching effects on overall health, the UCI student health insurance plan should be broadened to include dental insurance.
Keeping in mind the shortcomings of the current UC budget, there are alternatives to comprehensive dental insurance that UCI could provide. For example, instead of covering the cost of all services, UCI could provide a dental plan that would only provide benefits for preventative care. This would allow students to receive evaluations and teeth cleaning at a low cost, and if further treatment is needed, they can receive referrals to other dentists or even dental schools where dentists-in-training provide dental services at half the cost of private dentists. UCI could also offer dental insurance as an optional coverage like UCLA and UC Merced. Adding yearly dental coverage to the basic Undergraduate Student Health Insurance Plan at UCLA only costs an extra $174—less than what I pay at my private dentist for one cleaning and a check-up. UCI could also provide “coupon” discounts, a Blue Cross service used by UC Santa Cruz that provides discounts of up to 50 percent off the usual cost of care.
Although I use a top-of-the-line electric toothbrush, floss thrice daily and go for regular cleaning and check-ups, my teeth, due to their God-given nature, are still prone to tooth decay. It has taken me thousands of dollars and many hours of anxiety to realize the true value of dental health. Peers, don’t wait until you’re in the hole to get your insurance. You need it, and if we rally together, UCI could help.

Angie Im is a fourth-year public health sciences major. She can be reached at imay@uci.edu.