Word of Mouth

Benefits administrator blog from Delta Dental

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COVID-19 by the numbers

The early days of the pandemic brought a tidal wave of changes to businesses and their employees. Navigating this new normal can be tricky, especially since the situation seems to be changing daily. Looking at the changes that occurred during the pandemic can help you understand what trends to anticipate and how to prepare your benefits offerings accordingly.

Let’s take a high-level look at how COVID-19 impacted workers, dentists and the dental insurance industry, as well as a deep dive into claims data, patient surveys and expert opinion.

The rise of teledentistry

During the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, dental offices were closed to physical appointments for weeks. This led to a massive surge in the popularity of teledentistry services. Synchronous appointments (those with live phone or video interaction between dentists and their patients) saw a 3,000% increase between 2019 and 2020, according to Delta Dental claims during that period. Asynchronous appointments (where patients took photos or videos that were sent to a dentist for later review) saw a 1,000% increase in the same period.

The use of teledentistry has declined as the pandemic has worn on and dentist offices have reopened, but 2021’s synchronous and asynchronous appointment numbers still remain six times and two times higher than 2019 levels, respectively.

More states also updated their teledentistry laws during the pandemic. Based on Delta Dental’s internal tracking, 14 states added teledentistry regulations to their laws or expanded existing regulations, including states such as Texas that previously hadn’t allowed the practice of teledentistry at all.

Most importantly, in a phone survey of teledentistry patients during the pandemic, patients expressed widespread satisfaction with their options. This aligns with pre-pandemic expectations about teledentistry. Of those surveyed before the pandemic, 78% expected to use teledentistry within the next five years. That same group anticipated that working people, children and people with disabilities would benefit the most from teledentistry.

Dentists also had praise for teledentistry, with over 80% of dentists identifying it as useful for improving access to oral care, increasing specialists’ access to rural and underserved communities and as a time-saving technique. 

Virtual visits may not replace in-person checkups, but they remain a valuable tool for employees to get expert opinions and feedback when they can’t make it into the dentist office or prefer a remote appointment.

Providing alternatives for employees who can’t make it to the dentist office

The beginning of the pandemic was marked by profound economic uncertainty as dental practices closed and people sheltered in place. General practitioner income dropped nearly 18% in 2020 compared to 2019.

To help keep dental practices open and seeing patients, Delta Dental offered network dentists loans and reimbursements for personal protective equipment (PPE) costs and made free teledentistry tools available to members.

Loans offered in partnership with Provide (formerly Lendeavor) allowed dentists to make purchases, stay on top of debts and pay staff to ensure that they could keep their doors open. Delta Dental also offered a supplemental reimbursement to help offset the costs of PPE and office cleanings, ensuring that dentist offices remained safe for staff and patients alike.

The pandemic saw the rollout of two teledentistry options for Delta Dental members:

  • Virtual Consult is a synchronous service where members can use a smart device to have a live video chat with a Delta Dental dentist.
  • Toothpic is an asynchronous service that allows members to take photos of problem areas and get an assessment from a Delta Dental dentist within 24 hours.

These teledentistry tools allowed Delta Dental members to get expert advice and feedback on their dental needs even when they couldn’t make it into the office.

How people used their benefits

The early stages of the pandemic saw a decline in the number of patients going to the dentist’s office. One of the main reasons for the decline was that the sharp economic shutdown led to over 20 million Americans losing their jobs (PDF) and their dental coverage as well.

This decline had a profound effect on the nation’s oral health. In 2019, the most common procedures according to Delta Dental claims data were either routine preventive care or evaluations for specific issues. This shifted in 2020, when some of the most common procedures were fillings and root planing. 

Instead of staying on top of their dental health with low-cost diagnostic and preventive care, people instead required more expensive procedures to address the effects of dental neglect.

In addition to the economic hardships COVID-19 brought to patients, COVID also increased mental and emotional strain. Since the pandemic began, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders has risen to over 40% from about 10%.

These symptoms can manifest in jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Based on Delta Dental claims data, the number of patients requiring occlusal guards to prevent damage rose nearly 10% in the second half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Anxiety and depression can also lead to an unhealthy diet or substance abuse, which can in turn lead to oral health issues such as cavities. This may also help to explain the surge in fillings and scaling and root planing procedures in 2020.

Health and safety in the dental office

Even though COVID-19 is spread by exhaled aerosolized droplets, visits to the dentist’s office proved safer than visiting any other medical professional during the pandemic. 

Nearly 100% of dentist offices rapidly adopted enhanced infection control measures like pre-appointment screenings, in-office air purification and antiviral mouthwashes. 

Once vaccines became available, they saw widespread adoption amongst dentists, even before state and federal mandates. By the second quarter of 2021, over 90% of dentists had received at least one vaccination shot for COVID-19.

Patients also view dentists as valuable sources of information about their overall health in addition to their oral health. Two-thirds of dentists reported receiving questions from patients about the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the ADA (PDF).

Dentists rose to the occasion, with over 80% reported feeling prepared for these discussions and 95% believing it was important to have such discussions with patients. For employees who may be hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, speaking with trusted health professionals like dentists may help persuade them of the efficacy of getting vaccinated.

What did we learn from COVID-19?

Here are three key takeaways for employees and your business as you look to the future.

  • Encourage employees to use their benefits even during times of crisis. During the early stages of the pandemic, going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning was likely far from most people’s minds. Letting oral health slide in the short term can lead to costly and painful issues in the long term. Teledentistry tools can help employees get expert evaluation, even when they can’t make it into the dental office.
  • Let employees know what resources are available to them. Studies have shown that most people don’t really understand how insurance works. Your help as an insurance expert can go a long way towards letting employees know what kind of coverage and resources are available to them. There are plenty of benefits materials available for you to download and share with employees. Additionally, initiatives like Smile On can help employees maintain their coverage even in the face of economic uncertainty.
  • Consider benefits as part of your employees’ total wellness. Dental benefits are essential for helping employees maintain their overall health and wellness. Many ailments have symptoms that manifest in the mouth, including stress and anxiety. Valuable employee benefits can also help ease employees’ stress about staying healthy and paying for care. When your employees know how to make the most of those benefits, they’re more likely to catch and treat minor issues before they become major ones.

3 ways to rethink your employee benefits communication strategy

During your open enrollment period, you probably receive a flood of questions from your employees about their health benefits. But questions and confusion about benefits don’t begin and end with open enrollment. And for most companies, confusion about benefits is a major problem.

  • Only 39% of employees fully understood their company health insurance policies, according to a recent survey.
  • Nearly 20% of employees said they weren’t sure they understood the benefits they signed up for.
  • Almost half weren’t sure what their annual health coverage costs were.

The same survey found that this confusion about benefits can overwhelm employees, to the point that they often give up trying to understand them.

  • Nearly 20% of surveyed employees said they didn’t do any research before choosing their health benefits.
  • More than 90% of employees said they simply sign up for the same benefits year after year.

As a result, your employees may be spending too much to over-insure themselves, or conversely might be compromising their health by passing on important benefits to try to cut costs.

This confusion can be bad for your company’s bottom line as well, wasting available benefits and contributing to rising health care costs.

With is in mind, it might be time to rethink your benefits communication game.

Benefits communication: It’s not just for open enrollment anymore

Certainly, reaching out to employees about their benefits during open enrollment is always a good idea. But remember that your employees probably have questions and concerns about benefits throughout the year, and particularly when they have to use them. 

Look for opportunities to educate employees while benefits are on their mind.

  • At the beginning of the calendar or plan year, you can remind employees about new benefits available to them or that their new deductibles and maximums have reset
  • At the end of the calendar or plan year, you can encourage them to use their benefits before their deductibles and maximums reset
  • During the summer, you can suggest that employees with children take their kids to the dentist before they return to school
  • When employees move, or their office moves to a new area, you can offer them tips on how to find a nearby in-network dentist
  • When they experience a qualifying life event, such as getting married or having a baby, you can explain how to add a dependent to their dental plans

Help your employees help themselves

A single 20-something employee with a pet iguana is going to have very different health care needs than a married 50-year-old with a large family. What they might have in common, though, is their understanding of health care plans and their lingo — next to none.

So rather than simply mailing out printed plan guides that most employees don’t read anyway, find resources that target your employees and their unique dental plan needs to help them choose a plan that right for them.

  • For example, Delta Dental offers answers to frequently asked questions, which includes information about dental plans, such as the difference between PPO and DHMO-type plans, explanations of networks and orthodontic benefits and many other topics.
  • Delta Dental also offers helpful videos that explain Delta Dental plans, networks and more.

And be as transparent as possible with costs. If you haven’t already, share specifically how much employees will pay when they enroll in different plans.

Make benefits a two-way street

As you strive to better educate employees about their benefits, don’t miss the opportunity to have them educate you as well. Given the chance, employees might provide you with valuable information about what they want — and don’t want — in their benefits. Give employees multiple forums to provide you with feedback. A few possibilities include:

  • Q&A sessions
  • Polls
  • Surveys

The questions and comments you receive can help you tailor your benefits communication strategies by uncovering new issues, such questions about virtual dental care options.

Remember, benefits communication is about more than open enrollment. Building a strong communications strategy is important for the health of both your employees and your company. By creating effective, personalized and tech-friendly communications, you’ll potentially save money and time, and ensure that your employees get the benefits they want and need.

Orthodontics are becoming a more important benefit for employees

Brace yourself — National Orthodontic Health Month is here! When it comes to choosing dental benefits to attract and maintain top-tier talent, orthodontic coverage is essential. Here’s a deeper dive into orthodontic coverage and the value it brings to you and your employees.

More people are interested in braces

Braces do more than give people a pretty smile. By ensuring proper alignment of the teeth, orthodontics can make it easier to bite, chew and speak. Misaligned teeth are also harder to clean and can wear in unusual ways. Minor untreated issues can lead to more serious problems further down the road, and that can mean increased utilization costs for your business. Far from being a luxury, orthodontic treatment can be essential to proper dental health.

When you imagine your average person with braces, you probably picture a teenager whose parents want them to have a beautiful smile. While most of the over 4 million people in the United States who are currently undergoing orthodontic treatment are teens, over 25% of current patients are adults, and these numbers are expected to grow. The number of adults seeing orthodontists is at an all-time high, according to the American Association of Orthodontists, and that means the pool of prospective ortho patients is wider than it’s ever been. Even childless adults may be interested in these benefits, such as the young professionals in the job market.

Employees expect to see dental insurance among their benefits, and orthodontic coverage can help your plans stand out from competitors. Fortunately, Delta Dental plans offer such coverage at affordable price points.

What kind of coverage does Delta Dental offer?

Without insurance, prospective orthodontic patients can expect to pay between $3,000 and 6,000 dollars depending on their age. Delta Dental plans can help cut these costs in half. That’s why Delta Dental’s been recognized as the best overall dental insurance for braces in 2021.

Orthodontic coverage is available under both Delta Dental PPO™ and DeltaCare® USA:

  • Delta Dental PPO plans vary by group and may include orthodontic coverage. You can choose to limit orthodontic coverage to children under 19 or cover orthodontics for both children and adults. Coverage is usually subject to a lifetime orthodontic maximum per person.
  • All DeltaCare USA plans cover orthodontics at set copayments, with no maximums or deductibles.

While specifics vary depending on your plan, coverage usually includes:

  • Pre-orthodontic treatment visits
  • Exam and start-up records
  • X‑rays
  • Orthodontist-recommended tooth extractions
  • Comprehensive orthodontic treatment
  • Post-treatment records
  • Orthodontic takeover for treatment that’s already in progress

Plans generally don’t cover the following:

  • Orthodontic treatment for children delivered in two phases
  • Appliances to correct harmful habits (like thumb-sucking)
  • Jaw surgery to facilitate orthodontic treatment
  • Treatment to prepare for other non-covered surgical procedures

Alternative appliances like Invisalign, mail-order appliances and teleorthodontistry generally aren’t, but Delta Dental usually still covers some of the orthodontic treatment costs, such as x‑rays and exams.

Want to help your employees understand their out-of-pocket costs? For PPO plans, encourage your employees to ask their orthodontist for a pre-treatment estimate. DeltaCare USA members can check their plan booklet for their copayments.

From children to adults, the interest in orthodontics is only growing, especially among adults. You won’t want to miss out on delivering benefits that employees love — and expect. Consider adding orthodontic coverage to your plan — or expanding the orthodontic coverage you currently offer.

With Delta Dental’s plans, your employees can find the orthodontic coverage they’re looking for at a price point they can afford, and that’s a great reason to smile.

Tips for supporting your blind and low-vision employees

October is Blindness Awareness Month and it’s the perfect time to reevaluate some of your accessibility practices. Approximately 12 million Americans over 40 are visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 1 million are blind and 2 million have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of low-vision and blindness among adults over 50.

Not all visual impairments are obvious, so it’s important to offer options to your employees.

What you can do to help employees

Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean committing to big digital and office modifications. Being mindful of blind and low-vision employees and their needs can create a better office experience for everyone involved. A little bit of awareness goes a long way in creating a safer and more dignified workspace.

  • Communicate important information electronically. While sending paper mail may be standard for some communications, visually impaired or blind employees may have trouble finding the information enclosed. Sending a screen reader–friendly email, text message or audio file may be a better option. Talk to your employees about their preferences. Large type may be suitable for some people with low vision.
  • Equip your office. Assistive technology in the office creates a more inclusive workspace and gives low-vision and blind employees the tools they need to succeed. Scanners, magnifiers, screen readers and Braille displays are all helpful resources.
  • Make your company’s website and intranet accessible. Even the simplest webpages can have coding that’s difficult for screen readers. Make your webpages easier to use for blind and low-vision employees by using alt-text for images, being thoughtful with colors and choosing descriptive phrases for linking.
  • Don’t assume you can pet an employee’s guide dog. Tempting as it may be, guide dogs have an important job to do. If an employee relies on a guide dog, understand that by petting it or offering treats, you may be distracting it from helping its owner. Always ask the owner before approaching their guide dog.

Resources from Delta Dental

Studies have linked periodontal disease to retinal degeneration and certain oral bacteria to glaucoma. For those with good to moderate vision, seeing their dentist regularly can help protect their mouth and their sight. When your employees need a little extra help with their benefits, Delta Dental is here to help.

  • Document translation. Written materials, such as plan information, can be translated to Braille or audio formats for blind and low-vision patients.
  • Customer service. For any questions about their coverage, members can simply call 866–530-9675 and speak to a customer service representative. Contact customer service to request material translations.

All people deserve equal care and dignity when receiving it. For more resources, visit the Perkins School for the Blind’s workplace accommodation tips.

Open enrollment: Resources and what’s new

Open enrollment can be difficult for employees to navigate, but they won’t have to go it alone. Flyers, videos and more are available to help your employees understand their coverage options, choose the right plans for their needs and make the most of their benefits.

What’s new

New initiatives and resources available for this year’s open enrollment season.

Virtual booths

If your company has virtual open enrollment software, you can get all the benefits of having an in-person event virtually. With flyers, presentations and more, a virtual booth session is the perfect educational source for employees who can’t make it into the office. (Virtual booth sessions with a live Delta Dental representative require a minimum of 100 attendees.)

Quality ratings for dentists

Choosing the right dentist can be tricky. The new DentaQual rating system provides a simple and objective rating system based on a dentist’s past performance. That makes it easy for employees to find dentists that deliver effective, appropriate and fairly priced service.

Virtual dentistry

Two options are available for employees who are looking for teledentistry tools: Delta Dental – Virtual Consult (PDF) is a video-based app for members to consult with a Delta Dental dentist live, and Toothpic (PDF) is a photo-based app that lets members submit photos of problem areas for professional analysis.

Get check-ups remotely

Callback assist

When your employees contact Delta Dental’s Customer Service, they can now get a convenient callback instead of having to wait on the line.

A redesigned website

In 2020, we rolled out a whole new design for our website and refreshed its content. This new design makes finding answers easier, whether choosing a plan, understanding benefits or just looking for tips on maintaining a healthy smile.

  • Delta Dental members resources. Help members plan visits, know what to expect at the dentist’s office and what to do after they complete their visits. There’s also useful information about value-added benefits, like virtual dentistry and preferred pricing on LASIK and hearing aids, and a wellness library with articles, videos, recipes and more.
  • Delta Dental virtual dentistry. Understand teledentistry and the differences between Virtual Consult and Toothpic.
  • Smile On. If you have employees who may be retiring or ineligible for full-time benefits, Smile On is a great way for them to get affordable coverage that meets their needs.

New video content

These videos provide short and direct explanations of Delta Dental’s plans and features. To share these videos on your website or intranet, just click the videos to navigate to YouTube. Below the video you wish to share, click Share > Embed. Then copy and paste the code into your webpage or intranet site. 

These videos also feature Spanish closed captioning. To turn on Spanish captions, click the settings symbol (the cogwheel icon), then click Subtitles/CC and choose Spanish from the list.

Delta Dental PPO™ network 

All about the Delta Dental PPO network

Delta Dental PPO and Delta Dental Premier® networks

Get to know Delta Dental’s PPO and Premier networks

DeltaCare® USA 

Welcome to your DeltaCare USA plan

Online resources

Your online resources from Delta Dental

Online resources including the Cost Estimator

The Cost Estimator and other tools form Delta Dental

Resources for your employees

Multilingual support

Material in other languages, including Spanish and Chinese, is available on request. Delta Dental members can also get translation and accessibility services through the Language Assistance Program.

Material to share with employees

Check out the open enrollment benefits resources page for flyers that you can download and print to share with employees. These flyers cover:

  • Plan basics
  • Using a Delta Dental plan
  • Understanding dentist networks
  • Accessing online resources
  • Orthodontic coverage (braces)
  • Individual coverage
  • Value-added features

Even if your company hasn’t returned to the office, open enrollment doesn’t need to be a challenge. Online resources make choosing the right plan and making the most of it easier than ever before!

Has COVID-19 changed open enrollment forever?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused long-lasting changes to our priorities as a society and as individuals. From canceled events, working from home and separation from friends and family, employees and employers have had to adapt. It’s no wonder that the uncertainty of the pandemic has created changes in open enrollment.

Greater focus on the whole family

In the past year and a half, many adults became caregivers for their parents and took on education roles for their children while also working full-time. Employees are looking for benefits that extend to their family members and benefits that make the care of their family easier, like family and medical leave, assisted living coverage and child care coverage. Getting the whole family covered even extends to furry friends; the number of pets insured in North America has increased 23% since 2019.

Mental health services are more important than ever

The stress and difficulty of the pandemic have taken a toll on mental health. The percentage of adults in the U.S. who reported symptoms of anxiety and depression increased from 36% to 42% between August 2020 and February 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before the pandemic, Americans only chose virtual options for mental health care 20% of the time. After the pandemic started, the American Psychiatric Association saw their own members’ usage of telehealth services jump to 85%.

Employers are responding by offering mental health benefits that include access to online resources and apps that address stress and difficulty sleeping. About 70% of employers planned to start, continue or expand investment in mental health resources in 2021, according to a survey by McKinsey & Company. Employers who invest in mental health coverage get results. Almost 86% of employees who are treated for depression symptoms show substantial improvement in work performance, according to one study.

Employees expect to keep using telehealth options

While virtual visits won’t completely replace in-person visits any time soon, they’re definitely sticking around. Telehealth visits spiked during March 2020, but there were 10 times more telehealth visits in March 2021 than in March 2020, according to a market report.

Employees are using telehealth services and, in many cases, they expect to keep using it. In some cases, patients rated their interactions with their providers higher when they had virtual appointments than in-person.

To appeal to a variety of employee preferences, Delta Dental offers two different kinds of virtual dentistry: video-based and photo-based.

Virtual events preferred over in-person

With many employees still working from home and continually changing safety recommendations, in-person enrollment events are still being pushed online. Luckily, virtual enrollment has advantages for you and your employees. Instead of fielding phone calls and emails all day, you can update your website in real time to address common questions. Your employees can research and select benefits without having to keep track of physical papers or even leave the house.

What do successful virtual open enrollment events look like? A study by Flimp Communications concluded that a high-performing open enrollment campaign includes:

  • Microsites. These websites are customized to fulfill your group’s specific benefits needs with unique visuals, video and copy and can be used to address employees’ frequently asked questions.
  • Video. Both short-form and long-form video have a place in your campaign. A short-form video may simply be a quick, supplemental explainer and a long-form video would be more detailed and available for employees on demand.
  • Links. Linking out to your enrollment portal, to helpful PDFs, contact pages or financial-wellness portals helps employees sign up for and best utilize their benefits.
  • Decision support. Tools that collect all key benefits information into one place and then make recommendations based on algorithms or questionnaires had higher-than-average engagement.
  • Analytics. With real-time analytics, you and your team can adjust to help employees answer questions online. When you know what drives traffic, what people want, and when people want it, you’ll be even better prepared for next time.

The pros and cons of virtual events

Technology has its limits, however. The Pew Research Center found that only 26% of internet users aged 65 years or older felt very confident when using electronics to get things done online. If all your materials are online, make sure they’re easy to find for all employees, regardless of skill with technology. That means clearly labeling links and having logical paths through your website, as well as making sure all materials can be easily downloaded and viewed without special software.

In that same vein, virtual open enrollment gives you the opportunity to make materials accessible to employees with disabilities. Gaps in accessibility can leave individuals with visual, hearing and motor disabilities unable to make informed decisions about their health care.

Open enrollment changes motivated by COVID-19 may be here to stay. Adapt your open enrollment offerings to serve employees’ needs during and beyond the pandemic. Being flexible and responsive helps ensure your employees understand their benefits for the year ahead and are able to get the coverage they need.

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