With premiums a matter of pounds a week, dental and optical plans are rarely top of the agenda for employee benefits advisers. But, as these benefits can play a valuable part in an employer’s health and wellbeing strategy, they deserve more attention.
For starters, these benefits are incredibly popular with employees. “Dental is always in the top three benefits,” says Punter Southall Health and Protection managing director John Dean. “Everyone needs to go to the dentist but, as it’s expensive, employees appreciate having a benefit that takes care of these costs.”
Research from the providers supports this. Unum Dental recently published figures showing that employees would rather have dental insurance than a company share save scheme or discounted gym membership. Meanwhile on the optical side, 89 per cent of employers believe their staff value eye care as much or more highly than other benefits, according to Specsavers Corporate Eyecare.
The claims statistics also show the mileage in these benefits. On Simplyhealth’s cash plan, dental accounts for the most claims at 42 per cent, while optical is in second place at 17 per cent. “These are popular benefits,” says Simplyhealth director of corporate Pam Whelan. “Everyone should go to the dentist once or twice a year and, for most people, eye tests are recommended once every two years.”
There are several ways to cover dental and optical, with cash plans the obvious way to hit both areas in one product. The amount of cover varies but as an example Health Shield offers six different benefit levels on its corporate cash plan. These start at £1.22 a week for £40 each of annual dental and optical benefit plus £100 for dental accident, rising to £16.68 a week for £315 worth of annual benefit each and £1,000 for dental accident.
With the dental benefit, employees can claim for everything from check-ups and white fillings to hygienist fees and even teeth whitening. Likewise, the optical benefit can be used for eye tests and glasses but also contact lens solutions and even laser eye surgery.
Both benefits can be offered on a standalone basis too. When it comes to dental, Get Dental Plans dental insurance adviser and co-owner Paul Lewis points out that although there are only a handful of providers in the market, it is one of the fastest growing benefits. “Dental plans give a higher level of cover for dental work, with some even covering expensive treatment such as implants. Plans start at around £10 a month and go up to around £45 a month.”
Optical benefits can be provided in a number of ways too. Vouchers can be purchased that cover an eye test and, in some instances, also the annual maximum benefit across treatment on its plans. “We want to encourage employees to see their dentist and have the treatment they need. This reduces sickness absence but there are also links between poor oral health and serious conditions such as heart disease,” explains Rae.
This wellbeing focus can also be seen in Cigna’s launch last year of dental cover for the sandwich generation. In recognition that more employees are looking after ageing parents alongside their kids, this option allows them to add family members, including parents, parents-in-law and older children, to their plans at the same single rate.
Employee health and wellbeing is also central to VSP Vision Care’s proposition. VSP Vision Care managing director EMEA Jeremy Chadwick says eye care can help both the employee and employer stay on top of chronic disease risk. “An eye examination can pick up serious conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension long before any symptoms appear.”
As an example, diabetes can be detected up to seven years earlier. “Spotting it earlier gives an employee the opportunity to make lifestyle changes to prevent it developing altogether,” he adds.
As well as helping employees spot health issues early, the providers are also increasingly working with employers to help them gauge workforce health.
Whelan says that management information has become a valuable tool and Simplyhealth provides dynamic reporting to highlight usage and trends. “Employers can compare employee health across the workforce or against other firms,” she explains. “This can influence marketing but also evidence the value of the plan.”
Cash plan or stand-alone
With options to cover optical and dental individually or together within a cash plan, deciding which is most appropriate is not always straightforward. While the cash plan providers point to the range of additional benefits that employees can access, those offering stand- alone products believe they provide better value. “If you offer a single product, employees are much more likely to use it,” says Chadwick. “People are more than 50 per cent more likely to keep up with their prescription if they have a vision plan.”
Similarly, while it’s possible to have generous benefits on a cash plan, the lower levels can represent a financial obstacle when it comes to improving employee health. For example, Health Shield’s entry level plan gives £40 of dental benefit. This is enough to cover an NHS band one check-up at £21.60, but it won’t necessarily reassure an employee worried about the cost of more extensive treatment. While there may be some good-natured rivalry between the product types, there’s also evidence that they’re happy to work together. Some cash plans allow the dental benefit to go towards dental plan premiums and it’s also possible to tailor cover, removing optical and dental if stand-alone plans are in place. Given this flexibility, it’s much easier to find an option that benefits both employers and employees.