Since reopening, dental practices across the country have had to decide if they would assess an additional fee for personal protective equipment (PPE). In cases of insurance participation, the fee was often included in the cost of the procedure. This meant that offices had to write off the PPE fee and could not collect it from the patient. The already thin operating margins for these offices were impacted even further.
Over the weekend, however, another issue arose for Maryland dentists. The state of Maryland issued a consumer advisory titled, "Reopened Dental Practices Could be Violating the Consumer Protection Act by Charging Consumers for Enhanced Infection Controls." The advisory went on to note that reported fees ranged from $10-20 per visit while also reporting one office had charged $172.
States typically send out advisories when enough consumer complaints have been filed regarding the issue. Are other states receiving similar complaints? Local news stations like this one have covered consumer reactions to the PPE fees. Often heard is that some patients believe infection control should be a part of doing business, while others do not mind the cost and understand the reason. Whether the complaints are plentiful enough to warrant additional advisories is yet to be seen.
For offices that are charging PPE costs, be sure to inform the patient ahead of time regarding the fee. We all know that patients hate surprises. Surprised patients tend to become angry over unexpected costs. Is the lack of communication why patients are upset? Maybe. However, we can eliminate that factor with some preparation.
What can your office do to avoid a similar backlash? Tell patients the truth. The cost of infection control has increased for all dental offices. The carriers are not reimbursing and often keep you from charging for it. Your cost of doing business increased and reimbursements for your practice stayed the same. While I wouldn't turn it into a venting session, I would be honest about these factors. Patients are often sheltered from the true cost of dentistry.
Will you lose some patients over this? Perhaps. Let them know you are sorry they feel that way and tell them that you would hate for them to leave your practice. My advice is to say exactly those words: You would hate for the patient to leave. Patients with real connections to your office will consider your transparency and hopefully stay.
The reality is that our patients were financially affected by the shutdowns. Patients tend to not consider our operating costs at all ... and why should they? It's our job to run a sustainable business, not theirs. This is why I would like for you to be honest and forthcoming as to why you decided to charge the fee.
For now, keep a close eye on your dental society and state board communications. The Maryland Consumer Protection Division gave the dental society a heads up regarding the complaints a few weeks ago. The Maryland State Dental Association then notified their member dentists and did so again when the advisory was published.
If your state receives enough complaints, you may see this in your hometown. Proactively meet with your team to review the verbiage regarding PPE fees and why you charge them. You will likely need to practice those conversations to deliver the message well. That's to be expected. Your office's customer service skills could make the difference in whether or not the patient complains.
Teresa Duncan is the president of Odyssey Management and an international speaker who focuses on revenue, dental insurance, and management issues. She is the author of Moving Your Patients to Yes! Easy Insurance Conversations.
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