We do, indeed, get quite a bit of email here at IB; some's good, some's interesting, some's spam (or worse). We endeavor to answer all our (legit) email promptly, especially when it comes to claims or coverage issues.
Recently, we received this from one of our readers:
"I have always had a horrible fear of the dentist. I am 46 years old and though it is a tad better, I still tolerate long appointments better with nitrous. At my age, evidently I am all into the "crown stage"...either that or I am paying up someone's college fund.
My insurance will not pay one dime towards nitrous. Why? Medically unnecessary? They'll pay for one or two little pills if the dentist chose to try one of the anti-anxiety drugs (they don't work)."
First off, I am not a big proponent of (individual) dental "insurance:" in almost every circumstance, one is, at best, trading dollars with the insurance company. Think I'm off base? Do the math: waiting periods for anything more involved than a simple cleaning (and sometimes those, too!), deductibles and co-insurance for "major" claims, and an annual cap in the low $1,000's. Insurance companies miss very few tricks. Group dental is also a dollar-trading affair, but may make sense if some/most/all of those dollars are your employer's (if you buy into the theory that employers actually pay for insurance).
Be that as it may, our correspondent raises an interesting question: why is N2O not considered an eligible expense in this scenario? After all, novacaine is okay when you're having a tooth filled, and nitrous is approved for extractions, so why not here?
The easy answer is: because dental insurance is regulated very differently than medical coverage, and carriers can exclude a whole lot more in the former than the latter. Since a benefit that's excluded doesn't cost the carrier anything, there's an incentive to keep as much as possible off the "covered" list.
The more accurate answer is, as the email mentioned, "medical necessity." That is, "treatment which is required to treat or care for symptoms of an illness or injury or to diagnose an illness or condition that is harmful to life or health.” I might add that the industry has often expanded this definition, to include certain obvious comfort-making processes (i.e. anaesthesia for surgery, etc). One can readily see that, although our correspondent may well experience heightened anxiety when visiting her dental practitioner, this does not in and of itself constitute medical necessity.
One possible alternative for folks contemplating dental coverage is to look into an HSA compliant medical plan, and funding dental (and a host of other eligible) expenses through the tax-advantaged Health Savings Account. In this way, Uncle Sam is helping to subsidize your out of pocket, including the aforementioned N2O. And if you're able to shed some anxiety, the money then stays in your account, instead of going to the insurer.
A rather toothsome win-win.