After nearly two months at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Erica Schoenradt was making plans in May to see her dentist for a checkup.
Then she received a notice from Swish Dental that the cost of her next visit would include a new $20 "infection control fee" that would likely not be covered by her insurer.
"I was surprised and then annoyed," said Schoenradt, 28, of Austin, Texas. She thought it made no sense for her dentist to charge her for keeping the office clean since the practice should be doing that anyway. She canceled the appointment for now.
Swish Dental is just one of a growing number of dental practices nationwide that in the past month have begun charging patients an infection control fee between $10 and $20.
Swish and others say they need the extra money to cover the cost of masks, face shields, gowns and air purifiers to help keep their offices free of the coronavirus. The price of equipment has risen dramatically because of unprecedented demand from health workers.
Dentists say they struggle to pay these extra costs particularly after most states shut down dental offices in March and April for all but emergency care to reserve personal protective equipment for hospital use. They are also seeing fewer patients than before the pandemic because some fear going back to the dentist and at the same time dentists need to space out appointments to keep the waiting room uncrowded.
Nearly two-thirds of dental offices across the country have reopened for routine care, according to the American Dental Association.
The association, which sets industry standards, says dentists who opt to charge the extra infection control fee should disclose it to patients ahead of each visit, a spokesperson said.
"The infection control fee is helping us mitigate the costs of the extra expenses," said Michael Scialabba, a dentist and vice president of 42 North Dental, whose 75 dental offices in New England are charging an extra $10.
Why don't dentists just raise prices instead? Dentists said they have little or no leverage with large insurance companies to force them to raise their reimbursement rates. The ADA asked insurers to take into account additional COVID costs dentists face and many insurers responded by agreeing to pay extra fees.