If the cost of accessing dental care is causing pain comparable to a root canal, you likely live in Alberta, a new study by an insurance association reveals.

Joan Weir of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association says a 10-year assessment of dental rate increases completed last fall shows that Alberta is the most expensive place to keep your teeth healthy.

Joan Weir

Joan Weir of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association says increases in the cost of dental care in Alberta is in some cases, twice what it is in other provinces. (LinkedIn)

"We have seen a 56 per cent increase overall," Weir said.

"That is on the median fee, there will be some higher and some lower."

That's an average increase of 5.6 per cent annually, more than twice the increase seen in B.C. (2.6 per cent) and Ontario (2.4 per cent).

Those increases are fully paid for by patients.

The profession responds

Bruce Yaholnitsky is a Calgary dentist specializing in gum disease and a director for the Alberta Dental Association and College.

Bitewing radiograph

Bitewing radiograph coverage is $23.70 in B.C. but $47.00 in Alberta. (drgstoothpix.com)

On Tuesday's Calgary Eyeopener, he gave many reasons for Alberta's higher-than-average dental costs.

Those include dental hygienists' salaries, which he said are higher than the national average, higher overall costs in historically overheated regional economies like Fort McMurray, and Calgary's steep downtown parking rates, which are among the highest in Canada.

Yaholnitsky also cited Alberta's health care professions' infection prevention standards as a reason for Alberta's higher dental costs.

"It adds a significant cost to the daily procedures ... other provinces don't have the same stringent levels or costs associated with that," he noted.

What the survey looked at

The  Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association compared costs province-by-province for common services.

In B.C. the rate an insurance company will pay for a 30-minute cleaning is $73.80, in Ontario it's $110.00 but in Alberta it's $141.00.

Bitewing radiograph coverage is $23.70 in B.C., $34.00 in Ontario. The same service in Alberta is $47.00.

Weir said it might be the lack of fee guide in Alberta that is, in part, responsible for the increases. Every other province uses fee guides.

"It could be that in Alberta, maybe the absence of a fee guide has caused some of this but that would be speculation but that is a possibility," she said.

Weir says there are options to mitigate the higher costs.

She recommends taking the insurance company coverage list to a few dental offices to see what out-of-pocket costs will be.

"You should know how much is covered by your plan, so numbers of units is a really important feature, other things would be frequencies, how often within a six or nine or 12 month period can you have it, and also what might be the maximum that you plan is going to pay out," Weir said.

"Some plans have a maximum of say $1,000 a year of $1,500."

Deductibles and co-pay requirements are something to keep in mind too.

Alternately, Weir said patients can travel to other provinces to receive dental services is that's an option.

"Most insurance policies will pay claims from dentists across Canada no matter where you are," she said.

"If you happen to be travelling you could get some dentistry done anywhere in Canada and many [insurance companies] are now actually paying outside of Canada as well for services."

No set fee schedule in Alberta

Alberta's dentists stopped publishing a fee guide in 1997, arguing that getting rid of it would stimulate competition and lower prices for patients.

According to Bruce Yaholnitsky, with the Alberta Dental Association and College, the lack of a fee schedule has had its intended effect.

"I've been in this profession for 30 years," he told the Eyeopener's David Gray, "and I will tell you it's more competitive than it's ever been."

The lack of a fee schedule makes it hard for consumers to shop around and compare prices.

While dentists are free to tell prospective patients what their fees are, Yaholnitsky says it's more complicated than just calling the office and asking how much it costs for an average cleaning.

"There is no average cleaning," he said. "I deal with gum disease all the time...we literally spend hours trying to rehabilitate people's mouths ... it's like going to a cardiologist and saying, 'I need heart surgery.'"

Yaholnitsky says if patients aren't happy with their dentists' prices, they should find another dentist.

And he said Alberta's dental rates will likely stagnate or decrease because of the economic downturn .