Graduating students and alumni rate dental coverage among the top five most important benefits — medical insurance, yearly salary increase, 401(k) retirement plan, dental insurance and life insurance. In an increasingly competitive environment, a strong benefits package can play a key role in attracting and retaining top talent. Dental coverage has an important position in rounding out that package.

Unfortunately, many small business owners are unsure what to look for when choosing a dental benefits plan. In fact, 90 percent of benefits decision-makers rely on a broker or consultant to help them choose the best plan and carrier for their employees.

Here are seven tips from Delta Dental of Arizona to help you choose the best dental insurance plan for your company:

1. Understand your employees’ needs
Understanding your organization’s oral health needs is the first step in evaluating your dental benefits options. Different demographics face different oral health challenges. For example:
• Employees ages 20-39: This generation generally faces fewer oral health challenges. They benefit most from prevention and find value in a plan that covers basic cleanings and checkups. Members of this age group are more likely to be starting families.
• Employees ages 40-59: Members of this group often require restorative procedures. As their oral health needs change with age, they tend to seek ways to manage their health and wellness. They value a benefits carrier that provides access to expert resources and offers them choices to help confront oral health challenges.
• Employees ages 60+: Employees nearing retirement are more likely to face chronic conditions. They value a plan that helps them manage the expenses associated with more complicated procedures.

2. Find out how big the dentist network is
Employees are likely to be more satisfied with their dental plan when they can answer “yes” to this question: “Is my dentist in the network?” Having more in-network dentists to choose from improves network utilization rates simply because more employees are visiting an in-network dentist. This means more enrollees are enjoying protection from balance billing and saving the group money on claims – a satisfying result for the employer and employees.

3. Focus on preventative care
A strong dental insurance company will help employees manage their oral health by encouraging preventive care. This reduces long-term costs on the dental side and could also have a significant long-term impact on overall health and health care costs.

4. Ensure benefits information is available online
Progressive dental carriers’ online capabilities enhance customer service, provide flexibility and transparency and improve operating efficiency, from billing and paying claims to enrollment and enrollee communication.

5. Ask about customer satisfaction levels
An employer and its employees must have confidence that they’ll be taken care of after signing on with a carrier. Some carriers even include guarantees with financial penalties should they fail to meet agreed-upon service standards.

6. Consider adding enhanced benefits coverage
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has noted correlations between periodontal disease and health care costs for certain medical conditions, and studies examining the effects of oral health on systemic medical conditions continue to point out even more potential connections.

For little or no increase in premium, many carriers can add enhanced benefits for individuals with medical conditions that may benefit from additional oral health care. This could include pregnant women and/or persons with diabetes, cardiac conditions, suppressed immune systems, risk of oral cancer and other systemic diseases.

7. Be picky
Medical and dental benefits operate under very different models. While the former focuses more on treatment, the latter concentrates primarily on prevention. Furthermore, building and maintaining an effective dentist network is much different than building a network of medical care providers.

All things equal, an employer should choose a dental carrier that’s an expert at providing and delivering effective, high-quality dental benefits. A carrier committed to providing such dental benefits will be intimately familiar with the latest dental research, will have aggregated data on dental utilization and dentist reimbursements, and will be able use that data to create better products and control costs.

Regardless of the dental benefits carrier they choose, employers should be commended for the decision to provide dental benefits to their employees. People with dental benefits exhibit more healthy behaviors and better oral health habits – including brushing, flossing and visiting the dentist more regularly – and are less likely to smoke.

David Hurley is the vice president of sales for Delta Dental of Arizona, the leading dental benefits provider in Arizona, serving more than 753,000 enrollees and more than 3,100 contracted dentists across the state.