Business & Tech

State approves low-cost Delta Dental plan opposed by dentists

Dentist Dr. Cara Lund in her Stoneham office.
John Blanding/Globe Staff/File
Dentist Dr. Cara Lund in her Stoneham office.

The state has approved a new low-cost coverage plan by Massachusetts’ largest dental insurer, amid an outcry from dentists that it will cut into their incomes and force them to charge patients more for services.

Delta Dental of Massachusetts, which has about 2.2 million members, announced Friday that the state’s Division of Insurance had signed off on the company’s new affordable Total Choice PPO plan. Delta announced it would begin offering the new plan immediately to Massachusetts businesses.

The company’s president, Dennis Leonard said the move “allows us to reach a new population of employers who have struggled with the cost of dental care in the past.”

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“The status quo of rising costs and threatened access to dental care is not acceptable,” Leonard said in a statement.

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Already, more than 4,000 dentists have joined Delta’s new network, making it the largest dental PPO in the state, according to the company.

Dentists argued that the plan would force them to pack more patients into a day and to rush through appointments. The Massachusetts Dental Society, which represents about 4,500 members, had asked the Division of Insurance to hold a hearing to discuss Delta Dental’s plans. No hearing was held before the decision came down.

“We’re very disappointed because it was done without a public hearing,” said Dr. David P. Lustbader, president of the dental society. “A move this large without a public hearing is puzzling to say the least.”

A spokesman for the Division of Insurance said regulators are “convening a Board of Review to consider the Massachusetts Dental Society’s petition for a hearing.”

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Delta said the new plan is necessary to attract new budget-conscious businesses and to account for rising dental costs that can lead to increased premiums or reduced access to care. Employer groups, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, endorsed Delta’s new plan.

“Massachusetts businesses are being squeezed by health insurance costs,” Rick Lord, chief executive of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said in a joint statement with Delta. “Any effort by insurers to offer more affordable coverage options to employers is a positive one.”

Dentists get higher reimbursements under Delta’s traditional Premier network, which the company said it would continue offering along with the new low-cost preferred provider organization, or PPO. But dentists worry the low-cost plan will set a market trend that could eventually result in the premier plan being phased out, Lustbader said.

For some dentists, that could mean a substantial loss in income, which they say they would have to make up for by seeing more patients and by charging for more services.

Several dentists have said that signing on to the new plan means accepting reimbursement rates as much as 30 percent lower than they get from Delta now. The company said that the reduction is closer to 20 percent.

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The Massachusetts Dental Society filed legislation earlier this year calling for a review of plans by Delta, a nonprofit, to sell its new product through a for-profit subsidiary, which would allow the company to avoid the greater oversight from state regulators. Dr. Lustbader said it is unclear what will happen with the pending legislation in light of the plan’s approval.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.