Affordable Dental Care in Los Angeles.
The USA is renowned around the globe for its high standards of dental care, nowhere more so than in Los Angeles where you don sunglasses indoors not to look pretentious but to protect yourself from the blindingly white smiles of the bleached, beautiful masses. But these standards come at an equally high price, even with dental insurance, and if like me you're one of the 108 million who aren't insured, healthy, pain free, teeth become a luxury rather than a necessity.
If you're unemployed (or eligible for benefits / medi-cal), homeless, or under 18 then The Saban Free Clinic offers both dental and medical services gratis. They have four sites within the city of Los Angeles on Beverly Blvd, Hollywood, Blvd and Melrose Ave. Appointments can be made on 323 653 1990. See www.thesabanfreeclinic.org for further details.
However if you're employed, are not eligible for benefits of any kind, have no dependents, and are between leaving high school and retirement, then free dentistry is like the Loch Ness monster, we've all heard of it but no one's ever seen it.
The monthly payment on a dental plan can be very reasonable, looking on the net I found plans starting as low as $6.95 a month! This sounds great until you realise that for any 'major work' , i.e. crowns, root canals, veneers, implants, realignment, extraction etc... most insurance plans expect you to stump up 50% of the cost. Furthermore, the maximum that the majority of insurers will pay out per year is capped at $1000 - $1500. This is fine if you have good teeth and only go for a check-up twice a year, but say you need a couple of crowns and a root canal, after you and the insurers have each paid out $1500 you could still be looking at another thousand or more.
So your first step is to find a comparitively cheap dentist, after all 50% of a $750 crown, is a lot better than 50% percent of a $1500 crown.
I spent hours on the internet getting bogged down by research until a colleague of mine suggested I try calling a dental school as the students have to practice on a live dummy and therefore it was bound to be cheaper. I wasn't thrilled at the idea but I hadn't been able to eat on the left side of my mouth for nine months and I reasoned if the worst came to the worst, they could always pull the darn thing out, and I'd live with the gap. And so I discovered one of the best kept health care secrets in LA, the UCLA School of Dentistry Clinic.
Located in Westwood and Venice Beach, the UCLA dental school is open to all members of the public with or without insurance. It's basically the same as going to a regular dentist but the cost of treatment is roughly half that of the average LA dentist. The appointments also take longer and there is a slightly 'rough and ready' aspect to the treatment: don't panic - they won't skimp on the anaesthetic or the quality of work, just don't expect soothing music in the background and pretty pictures on the ceiling.
How do you sign up?
Firstly phone New Patients Services on 310-206-3904 to arrange an appointment. You can check the comprehensive, and easy to navigate, website www.dentistry.ucla.edu for site adresses.
In order to be taken on as a patient in the dental school you have to have something wrong with your teeth, so the first appointment is essentially a check up, and it's the same for everyone. Groups of six or less potential patients are ushered into a large examination room and are seated in separate dental cubicles in chairs which looks like every other dentist chair you've ever sat in. Each person is then briefly examined by a qualified dentist from the teaching faculty who will send you for a full set of x-rays if you're a suitable candidate for the student dentists. However should the treatment you need be either overly complex or not complex enough for the students then you have the option of going to one of the regular dentists who also have clinics there. If you do end up going for x-rays then the appointment will cost you $140 which also includes your next appointment which will be a thorough examination and organisation of a treatment plan by a dental student who is allocated to be your primary dentist.
Of course, should the dentist look at your teeth and not see anything that needs to be done, you pay nothing. So essentially you're getting a very swift check-up from one of the most skilled dentists in Southern California... for free.
There's a waiting list for that initial appointment (I had to wait three weeks), but once you're in the program it's a different story. The students arrange appointment times directly with the patients, and you can have several in one week if both yours and the the student's schedule will allow it.
There are two appointment times, 9 am in the morning or 2 pm in the afternoon, Mondays to Fridays (the afternoon appointment is not available on a Friday). Each appointment lasts around three hours, it can be less but you should make sure your schedule is clear for at least three hours especially since you'll have to figure in parking as well. The school has a parking lot that has a maximum cost of $11 for all day parking, but there are other parking lots for the nearby stores that can be a few dollars cheaper.
Why does each appointment take so long?
Everything the student dentist does has to be double checked by the supervising dentists in the clinic. Examination findings, x-ray analysis, proposed treatment plans, preparation work, actual work, teeth cleaning, final result .... it all gets checked, confirmed and approved. As there are several students to each supervising dentist, most of whom are performing complex treatment, this takes time, consequently you spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling with your mouth open.
Can a student really be as good as a fully qualified dentist?
At UCLA students spend two years practising on models, observing and assisting before they're set loose on real patients. From there on their lives depend on the approval of their teachers. My results have been flawless, because, as my student explained to me, they have to be flawless otherwise the students don't pass their course. Call me cynical if you like but explaining to Mom and Dad why you've wasted four years and thousands of dollars is every bit as motivating as customer satisfaction. The other thing to remember is that the teaching faculty are renowned dentists at the top of their field, they are not going to risk their reputations by allowing shoddy workmanship.
How much does it really cost?
At the time of writing, an amalgam (silver) filling cost between $72 and $109. The white ones ranged from $88 to $200. Extractions started at $65 going up to $165. Root canals, veneers, and dentures were all around the $500 or less mark. A gold crown would set you back $575, and top of the list are the dental implants at $850 - $880. Generally speaking the school's prices are 50% less than the average prices found throughout California.
Furthermore, the school accepts insurance, their website states that they will directly bill Medi Cal and Delta Dental. If you have another provider you will have to pay the bill yourself first, but can claim costs from your provider once the treatment has been completed.
The website also states that fees must be paid prior to treatment being carried out ... however if you're having a lot of work done then it's worth talking to the billings department and asking about payment plans even though they aren't mentioned on the site. I was offered a plan whereby I could pay 20% of my complete bill, have the treatment, and the remainder would be automatically taken from my credit card in six monthly installments. Although, if like me, you can't afford to pay it all within six months, then you can opt for the pay as you go system. You still have to pay for the work done by the day of your treatment, but you can arrange with your student to space the appointments out over several months, which gives you more time to come up with the fees.
Is the UCLA dental school right for me?
Can you commit to a three hour appointment on a week day? Would you be comfortable being treated in a clinic with open cubicles, where other patients are simultaneously receiving treatment? Are you happy to forgo the luxuries of a private clinic: the magazines, the flowers, the assistants, the pictures and mobiles on the ceiling etc..? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you may have found your dentist.
Appointment line: (310) 206-3904
Billing line: (310) 825-9805