By: Sheryl Smolkin
Read this article at ebn.benefitnews.com
McConnell’s wife is employed by the City of Ottawa, and Manulife reimbursed him for treatment up to the policy limits. “I provided them with the treatment plan, a description of the work done and X-rays. It’s exactly the same process as if I went on a trip to Thunder Bay or New York and broke a tooth.”
Out of that experience came the idea to marry his travel background and knowledge of China with access to lower cost dental care – and “The InciDENTAL Tourist” was born.
The two-week expedition includes dental treatment, local sightseeing and weekend trips to Suzhou (known as the Venice of the East), Shanghai and a dinner cruise on the Yangtze River. The first group left at the end of March, led by McConnell and dentist Dr. Conrad Sonntag.
“Partnering with a dentist provides us with the ability to help our clients before they go with treatment plans,” McConnell says. “It also adds credibility to our operation.”
Dental tourism rare
While McConnell’s business model certainly is novel, dental tourism is not. An Internet search results in 1.2 million hits with dentists from as far away as Eastern Europe, India and the Philippines trolling for business.
“The single most common situation we see in the U.S. is patients who cross over into Mexico for dental care,” says Marvin Zatz, a senior dental consultant in the New Jersey office at Towers Perrin. “The vendors will generally reimburse for services provided by the Mexican dentist, providing they have a Mexican address. The problem is where people try to fraudulently claim based on the U.S. fee schedule when they actually had the work done across the border.”
Policies may vary between U.S. providers, says Zatz, but the contracts he has seen typically are silent on where insured services have to be provided.
“Because there have been a large number of fraudulent claims from Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, American plan administrators and insurance companies have become very leery of claims that come from outside the U.S. unless they are from expatriates of their own company,” he says. “However, it seems logical that flex dollars could be used for foreign dental services.”
Although Manulife paid for McConnell’s dental work in China, Karen Millard, a benefits lawyer and principal with Towers Perrin in Toronto says prospective dental tourists should check with their provider first. “Most standard Canadian dental plans only pay for emergency out-of-country coverage. So if you have a $5,000 max for restorative work and want to get all your crowns done abroad, you really have to look at your plan – most of the time it will not be covered.”
But the Canada Revenue Agency does permit reimbursement from Health Savings Accounts for services provided abroad in certain circumstances, and a foreign dentist’s fee may also be applied toward the medical expense tax credit.
“The key is the dentist and the clinic or hospital must be licensed to provide the services by the country where they conduct business,” says Laura Mensch, Senior VP, and Central/Western Region Health Strategies Practice leader, Aon Consulting. “But the tax rules say travel expenses are only deductible if the services are not available locally.”
Zatz cautions that those considering dental tourism should be particularly concerned about quality, because outside of the United States, Canada and Western Europe standards can vary dramatically.
But Gary Jodoin signed up for McConnell’s tour, and says he’s not worried. He travels to Chengdeu in the Sichuan province of China regularly for his import-export business and over the last several years he has already had major dental restoration in both a hospital and a private clinic in that city. “Now I want to get the rest of my molars crowned and see a different part of the country,” he says.
“I have no dental plan, and the price is 20% to 25% of what I would pay in Canada,” Jodoin continues. “The places I went to in Chengdeu were state of the art and spanking clean. My dentist at home has dental chairs that are 25 years old.”
In addition to ensuring the dentistry is top-notch, Millard says prospective dental travelers should make sure they have out-of-country medical coverage and that they understand any exemptions or limitations in the policy. “What if an individual has a heart attack or a bad infection? His travel medical coverage may not kick in if the provisions apply only to unforeseen emergencies.”
However, McConnell is not overly concerned about possible medical emergencies or any potential liability to him as a result.
“I arrange the travel. Each individual contracts directly with Dr. Chen and pays him for dental services,” he explains. “On their first visit, they complete a detailed medical questionnaire and history. We advise people to buy medical insurance, and if anything unexpected occurs, we will make sure they get excellent care.”
While McConnell’s company is based in Ottawa, he already services clients on both sides of the border, and he plans to ramp up advertising in the United States over the next several months. He also is looking into adding other destinations for discriminating dental travelers.
“In the spring we are visiting Istanbul, Turkey and Bangalor, India, but we are cherry-picking,” says McConnell. “We’re looking to provide a first-class experience.”