smart spending john ewoldt

Those with good teeth and dental insurance probably think they have excellent coverage, with free exams and cleanings twice a year and a dentist who sends them away with a new toothbrush and vial of floss.

But if more complex work becomes necessary — crowns, root canals, implants or gum treatment — a person can easily be faced with a $2,000 bill after the copay. That's when schools that train dentists, hygienists and therapists can rescue your pocketbook. Their prices are 30 to 50 percent less than those of dentists in private practice.

"Many of our patients have a dentist in private practice, but when they need multiple expensive procedures, they come here," said Matt Merfeld, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in Minneapolis.

In fact, nearly 80 percent of the dental patients seen at the U have insurance, said Dr. Todd Thierer, associate dean for clinical affairs at the School of Dentistry. The problem is that, even with insurance, a patient may only be covered at 20, 30, 50 or 80 percent and the maximum benefit per year may be $2,000. "If you need a root canal and crown, you could be at the $2,000 maximum already," Thierer said.

If the upside of clinics is cost savings, the downside is time commitment. Visits can take twice as long compared with private practice due to extensive health histories taken, students who work slower than experienced dentists, and time taken for supervisors to check their work.

Norma Niemela, 87, of New Hope doesn't mind. "I've got time," the retiree said before getting a composite replaced on her incisor. She's received dental care from the U since 1953 when her three children were little. "We didn't have a lot of money back then, but I've kept coming here. I recommend it."

Susan Brandt of Minnetonka goes to the U for cosmetic dentistry services not covered by insurance. She saved about 40 percent on veneers. "I like that I'm getting the most up-to-date procedures and excellent care for less money," she said.

Dental clinics are across the Twin Cities. For exams, oral surgery and orthodontics, patients will usually need to go to the U. Hygienist schools perform cleanings, X-rays, scaling and whitening. Some therapists do fillings.

Some of the clinics take insurance, some work on a sliding-scale basis and some offer free services based on income. Most are open year round. Others are closed during summer and holiday breaks.

For free or low-cost dental options in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, go to www.mndental.org/public/dental-care or call 1-800-950-3368.

You might also try the following:

DENTAL ASSISTANT/HYGIENIST SCHOOLS

Cleanings range from $18 to $40, X-rays from $4 to $40 and sealants from $5 to $10 per tooth.

Argosy University dental hygiene clinic (1515 Central Pkwy., 3rd floor, Eagan, 651-846-3381): Exam by a dentist $20, root planing $40 per quadrant, fluoride treatment $10 and custom-made teeth whitening trays $100. Veterans receive free treatment and seniors get a discount on select procedures.

Century College dental hygiene clinic (3300 Century Av. N., White Bear Lake, 651-779-5787): The program charges for a treatment plan rather than by the service. Patients younger than 18 years and older than 62 are charged $30 for a treatment plan. The fee is the same for one or multiple appointments. For ages 18-62, it's $50. Services available include X-rays, cleaning, scaling and root planing, sealants, fluoride treatment and desensitizing treatment.

Hennepin Technical College dental assistant program (9000 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Park, 763-488-2569, and 13100 Collegeview Dr., Eden Prairie, 952-995-1633): Polishing and fluoride $15. Appointments available January to May.

Herzing University dental hygiene clinic (5700 W. Broadway, Crystal, 763-231-3174, http://tinyurl.com/kkxkfel): Periodontal maintenance $30. Half-off for seniors over age 55. Nitrous oxide for no extra charge.

Metropolitan State Dental Clinic (1670 Beam Av., Suite 203, Maplewood, 651-621-8840, www.dental.metrostate.edu: Exam by a dentist and X-rays $50, fillings $25 to $45, loose tooth removal $30, denture repair (varies). For low-income, uninsured patients only.

Normandale Community College dental hygiene clinic (9700 France Av. S., Bloomington, 952-358-8608, http://tinyurl.com/lau76bp): Deep root planing $30 (full mouth), nitrous oxide $20, free fluoride treatments.

DENTAL SCHOOLS

University of Minnesota School of Dentistry (515 SE. Delaware St., 7th floor, Mpls., 612-301-9000, www.dentistry.umn.edu): Exam and full mouth X-rays $147, cleaning $47, extraction $120-$200, crowns $750+, sealants $38 per tooth. Implants can be significantly less than through a regular dentist. The website also lists numbers for specialty clinics including braces and pediatrics.