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A Guide to Finding Affordable Dental Care

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Dear Need,

Finding affordable dental care can be challenging for seniors living on a tight budget. Most retirees lose their dental insurance after leaving the workplace, and original Medicare does not cover cleaning, fillings or dentures. While there's no one solution to affordable dental care there are a number of options that can help cut your costs. Here's where to look.

Medicare Advantage

While original Medicare (Part A and B) and Medicare supplemental policies do not cover routine dental care, there are some Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans that do. Many of these plans, which are sold through private insurance companies, cover dental care along with eye care, hearing and prescription drugs, in addition to all of your hospital and medical insurance. If you're eligible for Medicare, see medicare.gov/find-a-plan to look for Advantage plans in your area that covers dental care.

Dental Discounts

Another way you can reduce your dental care expenses is to join a dental discount network. How this works is you pay an annual membership fee - around $80 to $200 a year - in exchange for 10 to 60 percent discounts on service and treatments from participating dentists. To find a network, go to DentalPlans.com (or 888-632-5353) where you can search for plans and participating dentists by zip code, as well as get a breakdown of the discounts offered.

Another option that's currently available only in the southern California area is Brighter.com. They provide users free access to a network of dentists offering up to 50 percent discounts on all services.

Dental Schools

Dental school clinics offer savings opportunities too. All 65 accredited dental schools in the U.S. offer affordable care provided by dental students who are overseen by their professors. You can expect to pay about half of what a traditional dentist would charge and still receive excellent, well-supervised care.

Another option is to check with local colleges that offer dental hygiene programs. For training purposes, many programs provide teeth cleanings by their students for a fraction of what you'd pay at a dentist's office.

To search for nearby dental schools or dental hygiene programs visit ada.org/dentalschools.

Veterans Benefits

If you're a veteran enrolled in the VA health care program, or are a beneficiary of the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA), the VA is now offering a dental insurance program that gives you the option to buy dental insurance through Delta Dental and MetLife at a reduced cost.

The VA also provides free dental care to vets who have dental problems resulting from service. To learn more about these options, visit va.gov/dental or call 877-222-8387.

Low Income Options

If you're low income, there are various programs and clinics that provide dental care at a reduced rate or for free. To look for options in your area contact your state dental director (see astdd.org), or your state or local dental society (ebusiness.ada.org/mystate.aspx).

You may also be able to get discounted or free dental care at one of the federally funded HRSA health centers (findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov, 877-464-4772), or at a privately funded free clinic (nafcclinics.org).

Also check with the Dental Lifeline Network (dentallifeline.org, 888-471-6334) which provides free dental care for low-income elderly and disabled; Remote Area Medical (ramusa.org) which offers free health, eye and dental care to people in select locations; and Indian Health Service (ihs.gov), which provides free dental care to American Indians and Alaska Natives who are members of a federally recognized Indian tribe.

Also see toothwisdom.org, a website created by Oral Health America that will help you locate low-cost dental care.

What to Consider

When Choosing

a Walk-in Bathtub

Dear Savvy Senior,

I'm interested in getting a walk-in bathtub for my wife that's easy for her to get into and out of, but could use some assistance. Can you offer any consumer tips?

Need Help

Dear Need,

A walk-in bathtub is a great option for seniors with mobility problems who have trouble getting in and out of a traditional tub. But with so many options available today, choosing one can be challenging. Here are a few tips that can help.

Bathtub Basics

Walk-in bathtubs are specialty products that have a watertight, hinged door built into the side of the tub that provides a much lower threshold to step over (usually 3 to 7 inches) versus a standard tub that's around 15 inches.

In addition to the low threshold, most walk-in tubs also have a built-in seat, grab bars, anti-slip floors and a hand-held shower head. And many higher-end models offer therapeutic spa-like features that are great for seniors with arthritis and other ailments.

The kind of walk-in tub you choose will depend on the size and layout of your bathroom, your wife's needs and preferences, and your budget. Prices for a good walk-in tub typically run between $3,000 and $10,000 installed. Here are some other things you should know.

Quality check: The best walk-in bathtubs on the market today are made in the USA. Also, make sure the company you choose has a lifetime "leak-proof" door seal warranty and lengthy warranties on both the tub and the operating system.

Tub size: While walk-in bathtubs vary in shape and size, most models have high-walls (three feet or higher), are 26 to 32 inches wide, and will fit into the same 60-inch long space as your standard tub without having to reconfigure the room. If the walk-in tub doesn't quite fit your old bathtub space, extension kits are available to ensure a good fit.

Door options: Most walk-in tubs have an inward opening door, but if your wife uses a wheelchair or is a large person, an outward opening door may be a better option because they're easier to enter and exit. But, be aware that because these doors swing out, they require more bathroom space.

One other style to consider is the "rising-wall" bathtub made by Kohler, which sits about two feet off the ground and has a side panel that slides up and down. These tubs can be entered from a seated position, which makes it a nice option for wheelchair users.

Tub type: Most companies offer several different types of walk-in tubs. The most basic type is a soaker tub, or you can get a therapeutic tub that offers either whirlpool water jets or bubble massage air jets, or a combination of the two.

Fast fill and drain: One drawback to using a walk-in bathtub is that the bather must sit in the tub as it fills and drains, which can make for a chilly experience. To help with this, choose a tub that has fast-filling faucets and pump-assisted drainage systems, which significantly speeds up the process.

Where to shop: While there are many companies that make, sell and install walk-in bathtubs, some of the best in the industry are Safe Step (safesteptub.com, 800-346-6616), Premier (premiercarebathing.com, 800-934-7614), American Standard (americanstandard.com, 866-423-0800) and Jacuzzi (jacuzzi.com, 800-288-4002). Many big box retailers like Lowes, Home Depot and Sears sell walk-in bathtubs too.

Unfortunately, Medicare does not cover walk-in bathtubs, but many companies offer financing with monthly payment plans.

To get started, contact a few companies who will send a local dealer to your home to assess your bathroom, and give you product options and estimates for free.

Editor's Note: Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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