About a month ago, I chipped a tooth. I didn’t chomp down on anything particularly crunchy, and I didn’t whack myself in the face. I just took a bite of my dinner, and there went a piece of one of my molars.
Over the past four weeks, I have visited the dentist four times. Once so that he could assess the damage (his dental chair was broken, so all he could do was give me a temporary filling), once to get my tooth drilled down to a nub and get measured for a crown, once to get the crown itself and two fillings on the other side of my mouth, and a fourth time today because one of those fillings decided to cause me trouble.
Last night, when I went to floss, a piece of tooth or filling popped out–I honestly wasn’t sure which. I wanted to cry.
And yet, I am so incredibly lucky.
I have dental insurance through my union. I go to a dentist who participates in this plan. I can get routine cleanings and exams for the cost of a small copay, just like any other basic medical care.
I am lucky.
Without dental insurance, getting even basic, routine dental care is expensive. It might involve saving up for months, or going into debt. It might mean going to the dentist for a cleaning and realizing you still owe them money for your last cleaning six months ago, or a year ago–and that’s if you’re able to afford regular cleanings at all.
Over the past few weeks, the dental care I needed went beyond routine maintenance.
I spent $180 to get the tooth-colored fillings instead of the silver ones. I could afford $180.
I am lucky.
If I’d gone with the metal fillings, they would have been completely free. Even if I had no money to get those two fillings, I would have been able to take care of them.
I am lucky.
Crowns cost more than fillings. For a basic crown, the copay on my insurance is $150. My dentist recommended a more expensive crown, as the latter is more durable. At the end of that appointment, I was charged $500.
I handed over my credit card without a second thought.
I can just pay $500 and not worry about it.
I am lucky.
If I couldn’t afford $500, I could have gotten a lower quality crown for a few hundred dollars less, and that’s lucky too.
Without insurance, or so the internet tells me, the cost of the crown itself can range from $500-$3000. And that’s just the crown itself, not the rest of the work that goes along with it. But my total cost was only $500, and that’s more luck, right there.
Two days ago, I got my crown, and both fillings. Yesterday, I was once again able to chew on both sides of my mouth without worrying, and it was wonderful.
Last night, I flossed my teeth, and a piece came out, and I wanted to cry.
I thought that, as of Tuesday, I was done with the dentist for a while, done with painful shots of novocaine and drills that still hurt, even when my mouth was numb. Done with sore jaws and sensitive gums.
And then, last night, I worried that I might have to get another crown.
It turned out that what popped out was a piece of Tuesday’s filling, and the filling needed to be redone. I didn’t need a crown, and that was a relief, but the procedure still involved novocaine, and it still involved some pain, and my body freaked out a bit because this was twice in one week with the shots and the drills and the poking around, but at least there was only a little bit of drilling.
Yet again, I was lucky.
I was lucky because, last night, when I wanted to cry, I was only worried about the inevitable pain and discomfort that lay ahead of me. I didn’t have to worry about the money.
I could afford that second crown if I had to. I could afford the *good* crown if I had to.
And for that, I am very lucky.
Dental procedures cost money. I paid $680 over the past two weeks. And yes, I could have saved a few hundred dollars if I went with the cheaper crown, but would it really be the cheaper crown if it broke in ten years or in five? And, even then, the crown would not have been cheap.
And that’s with insurance.
I can’t imagine paying for any of this if I didn’t have insurance. $500 is the cost of an iPad. It’s the cost of about two months worth of food for me, and I buy brand name cereals, kosher chicken, organic produce.
I can’t imagine what it would feel like to pay for this if I had a lower income, or children to care for, or an apartment with higher rent. What if this had happened when I first began teaching? When I was earning less money and had no savings? What if I’d just laid out money for some other major expense?
What if I didn’t have insurance?
But, this month, I didn’t have to worry about money. I didn’t have to choose between healthy teeth and feeding my family, between having a mouth free of pain and having money to pay my rent. I didn’t have to worry about how many months or even years it would take me to finally finish paying for a necessary dental procedure.
I visited the dentist four times within a month, and I am so incredibly lucky.
I shouldn’t be.
Spending $500 for dental work shouldn’t count as lucky.
Even paying $150 should sound like too much.
Being able to afford dental care should not feel like good luck. It shouldn’t feel like privilege. It’s something every American should be able to take for granted, and it’s not. And that’s a serious problem.