Chicago, IL

The High Cost of Having Teeth

Sherry McGuinn

A " healthy mouth" comes with a price.

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It took me a long time to find a dentist I felt I could trust. I hadn’t been to one in years as I had developed a phobia about dental procedures — just one more in an ever-growing assemblage.

To me, even though I know there have been many technological advancements in dentistry, it seems that the procedures themselves really haven’t changed all that much. Or gotten easier, for that matter.

Dentists are still poking and prodding our teeth and gums with sharp objects. Still incorporating painful novocaine shots so that we’ll be “numb” for whatever heinous procedure follows. And still charging a fortune for these procedures.

My phobia was so intense that I had a hard time picking up the phone to “interview” dental practices in my area.

Finally, I came across one that I felt might be “okay.” I liked what they had to say and they didn’t try to push me into making an appointment. In fact, I believe I had at least three of four phone conversations with one of their head staffers before I broke down and made an appointment for a consultation.

Damn. That was rough. After a thorough x-ray of my maw, I found out about all the things I needed to have done. I had substantial bone loss for one thing. That threw me since I eat right, take supplements, follow good oral hygiene, floss like a mother — all that crap “they” tell you to do.

I needed a crown here, (which necessitated a bone graft, first) a cavity filled there…basically a ton of work. But I was still employed at the time and had dental insurance. (Even with insurance, many of these procedures are cost-prohibitive.)

The dentist was very kind and empathetic and also not pushy. But here’s what I really liked about the guy: He was skilled at sedation dentistry. I’m not talking about novocaine or “laughing gas.” I mean, real, honest-to-goodness, knock-you-the-hell-out sedation!

Hell, yeah. Sign me up!

I made an appointment for my first go-round of “stuff.” It was to be a long one as I opted for the sedation so the dentist could get as much done as possible. I felt it was worth the extra $350 that insurance didn’t cover. Of course, they didn’t. Why the hell would insurance companies cover something that might make us more comfortable and ultimately improve our overall health?

We’re not into that in these here United States.

After the consultation, I was given a script for Valium to take the morning of, which I clutched in my sweaty palm like a lifeline, and sent on my merry way.

On the morning of my first appointment, I popped the pill and was in a nice, buzzy state by the time I was strapped into the “electric chair.”

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The horrific-looking x-ray of my mouth directly in front of me, my entire oral cavity in full view. I did my best to avoid looking at it as all I could think of was “death mask.”

As I tried to focus my gaze on the window, and the birds that were flocking to the feeders outside, a technician hung a lot of crap from my mouth, hooked a bib around my neck and finally, in walked Dr. Feel Good, resplendent in black scrubs.

Now, I like this man. He’s a good guy and more importantly, has all the bells and whistles. And he’s pretty decent looking. Which helps when the guy is nose to your nose. But those bells and whistles come at a price, folks. My husband and I have been seeing him for years and right now, we owe him close to $2,500.

When the assholes where I used to work laid me off, I naturally lost my medical and dental insurance. That was a big hit. Luckily the dental practice that my husband and I frequent allows patients to pay them “over time,” and I’m vigilant about that, but still…

The day of my first appointment was like a vacation for me. With the valium chilling me out like a weighted blanket, the dentist stuck an IV in my arm and I was out like a light. Like a kid who’d spent hours running around a playground and was ready for “night-night.”

I never felt a thing nor knew what was going on. That’s how I like it. At the dentist, ignorance is oh, so blissful.

When I awoke, I was given oxygen and trundled into my husband’s car where I dozed the whole way home.

That was years ago and we’ve been going to the same dental practice ever since.

We’ve paid off the bill a few times since then, but all it takes is a couple of “deep cleanings,” an extraction or two, and the mofo is right back up again.

Recently, my husband was the doleful recipient of Dr. Feel Good’s ministrations to the tune of, well — a hell of a lot of money.

I understand that good work comes at a price, but shouldn’t we expect “good work” from all our healthcare professionals? I mean, WTF? Need we go into hock in order to have a healthy mouth?

Should only the wealthy and privileged among us be entitled to gold-standard medical and dental care?

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Hell, no. But they get it nonetheless. That’s what entitlement is. Getting what you don’t necessarily deserve because you have the money to pay for it. While the rest of us stand along the sidelines with our mercury fillings and our receding gums.

Do you think POTUS goes to some dentist in a strip mall somewhere? He deserves to be drilled, alright, but not in this context.

Before he retired, my cousin’s husband used to make teeth, crowns, implants and the like. He told me that the actual cost of making these babies is a fraction of what we patients are charged. In other words, the markup is crazy.

And we need our teeth to chow down on our Whoppers, our Gorditas, our McNuggets, our Curly Fries, and our Unlimited Breadsticks, so what the hell are we going to do? What recourse do we have?

From costhelperhealth.com, check out the average costs for these procedures: Filling a cavity can cost $50-$300 or more for a silver amalgam filling, and $90-$450 or more for a tooth-colored composite; insurance typically covers all or most of the cost of amalgam fillings, but only part of the composite filling cost.

Dental crowns can cost $500-$1,500 or more per tooth for porcelain-fused-to-metal crowns; $600-$2,500 or more for gold or other metal alloys; and $800-$3,000 or more for all-porcelain. Crowns are not covered by insurance if they can be considered cosmetic.

A root canal can cost $300-$1,500 for a front tooth; $400-$1,800 for a bicuspid; and $500-$2,000 for a molar Dental insurance might cover 40%-80%, but many plans have an annual maximum of $1,000-$2,000.

As ridiculous as these figures are, to me, and compared to what my dentist charges, they appear to be on the conservative end. I seem to remember paying thousands for my bone graft and subsequent implant almost two years later! (That’s how long we had to wait to see if the graft would “take.”)

When the implant was finally in, I wanted to shove a whole pack of gum in my mouth and chew the shit out of it.

Again, I go to this guy because of his skill, and more importantly, he doesn’t hurt me. So you might say to me, “You get what you pay for.” But shouldn’t we expect any licensed dental or medical professional to be skilled? Is that like, an added perk?

At my former company, I was enrolled in their stock options plan. The damn things have been tanking every quarter and I’m thinking of selling them. I see no point in waiting until they’ve completely evaporated.

Originally, my husband and I talked about using whatever money is left to fix a couple of things around here that need fixing. But now, I’m thinking of handing it over to our dentist and paying down that freakin’ bill.

Talk about a kick in the teeth.

© Sherry McGuinn, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.

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Chicago, IL
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