EVERETT — Dr. Kale Eckland had plenty of time this spring — and a close circle of consultants — to contemplate his next business move.
Eckland and his two older brothers are dentists. When Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 stay-home order went into effect March 13, they found themselves with more time than teeth.
Dental services, except for emergency procedures, were suspended.
Eckland temporarily closed the Everett dental clinic he’s run since 2011. His brothers, Dr. Keagan Eckland and Dr. Colby Eckland, shuttered their respective clinics in Woodinville and Redmond.
“We had the opportunity to talk really candidly about our businesses,” Kale Eckland said.
And when the brothers, who live within a mile-and-a-half of one another, needed additional advice, they called on their father, Dr. Daryl Eckland. You guessed it — a Woodinville dentist.
“We spent probably eight to 14 hours a day in someone’s office or in someone’s house, every day,” Eckland said of the dental shutdown, which lasted nine weeks.
One deeply troubling trend they watched unfold was the staggering increase in the state’s unemployment rate.
From March to April, Washington’s jobless rate rose from 5.1% to an astounding 15.4%.
Those job losses meant that thousands of workers and their families stood to lose medical and dental coverage, Eckland said.
Of the two-thirds of Americans — about 173 million — with private dental coverage, most are insured through an employer or group plan, according to the National Association of Dental Plans.
The Ecklands hoped to create a safety net for patients who might have lost a job and dental coverage.
One idea the brothers kept returning to involved creating an in-office dental membership that could stand alone or supplement dental insurance. Subscribers pay the doctor directly under such plans.
“Membership plans aren’t new,” said Kale Eckland “They’ve been around for a while.”
The Ecklands are among a growing number of practitioners who offer in-office dental membership plans.
Direct-pay plans are becoming more common, according to the American Dental Association.
For people who’ve lost a job and dental insurance, they’re an alternative to buying dental insurance or going without, Eckland said.
Benefits to dental clinics may include a more reliable income stream and higher patient retention rates, according to DentistryIQ, a trade publication.
The Ecklands crunched the numbers — Kale Eckland’s undergraduate degree is in economics — and came up with an in-house dental plan priced at about $70 a month.
The purpose “is to put preventative care first and make sure the price is not prohibitive,” Eckland said. “We thought that $60 to $70 per month is a pretty good number.”
When they were allowed in May to return to work, the Ecklands rolled out their membership plan, which is honored by the three dental clinics they operate.
The standard adult plan costs $69 a month and includes two annual visits and teeth cleaning, and X-rays. It also provides a 15% discount on any treatment, Eckland said.
A higher-frequency plan for patients with gum disease costs $123 a month and covers four annual visits. A plan for children up to age 12 costs $59 a month.
“Our first enrollees signed up in July. We’ve been adding to it every single month,” Eckland said.
How do in-office plans stack up against regular dental insurance or paying for dental services out-of-pocket?
The dental plan association does not compile data on in-office plans. The American Dental Association says it’s another option to consider.
For people who don’t have dental insurance or who don’t like their employer-provided dental coverage, direct-pay plans can be an alternative, Eckland said.
Such plans are also an option for seniors 65 and older seeking dental coverage. Remember, Medicare does not cover dental care.
Other options include seeking treatment from a dental school such as the University of Washington School of Dentistry.
Start by looking at your budget and your dental care needs, experts advise.
A thing to note is the difference between health coverage and dental coverage: Health insurance is intended to help protect against costly medical bills. By contrast, most dental insurance plans cover “only preventive care and basic procedures, such as cleanings and fillings,” according to a primer on shopping for dental coverage.
Consumers considering whether to opt for an in-house dental plan should note the kinds of treatments that are covered and what kind of discount to expect on treatments that aren’t covered by the plan.
The same goes for comparing dental insurance plans. Pay attention to the premiums, deductibles and the annual maximum, and also note any waiting periods for coverage to kick in.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods