The biggest career threat to a dental hygienist isn’t the economy, a sudden drop in demand for dental care, or being replaced by a machine.
In fact, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for hygienists will grow 6 percent over the next decade.
What could derail your ability to make a living as a dental hygienist is an injury or illness that limits your ability to perform the job.
What would you do if a chronic illness limited your hours or prevented you from working altogether? Could you work if you lost part of your vision? Plus, any loss of the use of your hands, whether temporary or permanent, would greatly affect your ability to work.
You can help protect yourself against this risk by purchasing disability income insurance.
Disability insurance is designed to replace a major portion of your income if you are unable to work due to injury or illness. It's different than workers' compensation coverage, which only covers you if you’re injured or get sick in a work-related incident.
Disability insurance is an insurance policy for your income in the event you can’t work because of something that happened to you outside work, such as an auto accident, a cancer diagnosis, or complications from a surgical procedure.
Nearly everybody who earns income from working should consider buying disability insurance.
Estimates range from 25 percent to 30 percent of American workers will endure some type of temporary disability during their careers that will prevent them from working.
Nearly 90 percent of disabilities are not work-related and therefore are not covered by workers’ compensation.
Insurance industry statistics show that only 9 to 10 percent of long-term disabilities result from serious accidents. The top causes of disability, according to the Council for Disability Awareness, are chronic conditions, with 25 percent caused by muscle and bone disorders like back problems, joint pain, and muscle pain.
As a dental hygienist, you spend a fair amount of time both sitting and standing. You use your hands to handle, control, or feel objects, tools, or controls. Many of your tasks require repetitive movements, as well as bending or twisting your body. These physical demands would be difficult to continue during a full-time workweek if you suffered from muscle or bone disorders.
In addition, you must be able to see the detail in your patients’ mouths. Therefore, any major loss of vision could impact your career.
Your education and experience as a hygienist do not translate to many other professions. If you can’t work in your chosen field because of a disability, you may have to make a living doing something completely different. That may result in a cut in pay and/or investment in more education.
According to BLS, the median salary for dental hygienists in 2020 was just over $77,000.
The monthly benefit amount for disability insurance is based on a percentage of your income. The more you earn, the higher your monthly benefit amount will be and the more your insurance premium will cost.
Another factor that determines the cost is the occupation of the insured. To determine the pricing and benefits of policies, insurance companies group jobs into specific occupational classes.
These classes take into account the hazards of the job and the difficulty in returning to work following a disability. Another factor is the claim experience associated with certain professions.
Insurance companies generally classify occupations on a scale of 1 to 5 or 6. Many use the letter M to designate medical professionals. Typically, the higher the numerical value of the classification the lower the rate available from the insurance company.
Disability insurance carriers usually classify dental hygienists and dental assistants as a 2 or a 3. In some cases, a higher classification may be available.
In addition to understanding occupation classes, dental hygienists should also know how insurers define disability before they buy a policy.
Hygienists should buy a policy that includes an own occupation definition of disability. This provision states that the policy will pay benefits if an injury prevents you from working in your medical specialty, even if you’re well enough to earn an income doing other types of work.
For dental hygienists, your specialty is considered your own occupation and you’ll be paid benefits if you are unable to work in that specialty due to an accident or illness.
The average cost of disability insurance for all workers is typically between 1 percent and 4 percent of your annual income. Another rule of thumb is that you should expect to pay between 2 percent and 6 percent of your policy’s monthly benefit amount in premium.
You may pay more or less for coverage depending on other factors, including:
- Your age. The younger you are, the less you will pay for coverage
- Your health. Disability insurance underwriters will conduct an exam and get a family history and personal medical history to determine the likelihood of you having a disability. The better your health, the less you will pay in premium.
If you need to keep your premium cost as low as possible, you can also design your policy to include:
- A longer waiting period. This is the period of time following diagnosis of your disability before your benefits begin. Waiting periods, also known as elimination periods, can range from 30 days to a year. The longer the period, the less your premium will be.
- A shorter benefit period. This is the maximum amount of time you will receive benefits following the diagnosis of a disabling condition. You can choose lengths ranging from two to 10 years. You can also select a benefit period that lasts until age 65 or 67, regardless of when you become disabled.
Another way to save money on disability insurance is to buy into a group plan.
Group disability insurance plans offer a group of employees or members of a professional association the ability to purchase disability insurance. There is no underwriting involved in a group plan; all applicants with the company or organization are provided coverage. Group plans typically cost less than individual plans because insurance companies get to spread their risk over multiple insured individuals. Plus, an employer or association may subsidize the coverage for its employees or members.
At the same time, group plans generally offer less in benefits. Also, your ability to have coverage is contingent on being employed by the company or a member of the organization sponsoring the group plan. If that changes, you lose your coverage. There is also usually an annual renewal process for group plans and there is no guarantee that the employer, organization or even the insurance company will renew the group coverage.
In addition to group plans through your employer, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) offers two options for group coverage to its dues-paying members.
If you buy an individual disability insurance policy, you’ll have the option to add features to enhance your coverage. These features will add to the cost of your policy. Examples include:
Student Loan Rider
Though you likely haven’t spent as much on your education as dentists, your student loans can still add up and take up a significant part of your monthly budget. To help dental hygienists pay for some or all of their student loan debt if they can’t practice, some carriers offer this rider.
It’s a relatively inexpensive option to add, however, it’s only recommended for people who have heavily invested in their education. It can help increase your coverage if:
- Your maximum disability benefit falls short of covering monthly expenses.
- You have a monthly student loan payment of at least $250.
- Your payments will last 10 to 15 years.
Catastrophic Disability Rider
This rider can help pay for the care needed due to a catastrophic injury or illness. Disability insurance policies define catastrophic injuries as one in which:
- You suffer a complete loss of at least one of these senses: speech; hearing in both ears; sight in both eyes; or use of both hands, both feet, or one hand and one foot.
- Your condition prevents you from performing at least two of the six activities of daily living (ADL) without assistance: bathing, dressing, eating, using the restroom, continence, and transferring.
- You have severe cognitive impairment as measured by accepted medical tests.
A Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) Rider will increase your benefit amount each year you are disabled. The idea behind this rider is that your expenses — i.e., your cost of living — increase each year with inflation.
A COLA rider only increases your benefit amount once you’ve started collecting benefits due to a disability.
The younger you are, the more you should consider a COLA rider. Without the rider, your benefit amount will remain the same during your benefit period.
Learn More: How Do Disability Insurance Riders Work?
Without disability insurance, you could lose a significant amount of income and all that your income supports if you’re in a bad accident, lose your vision, or suffer an illness that affects your ability to practice dental care. Even if the disability is temporary, you could fall behind on your mortgage or car payments, rack up more debt, and be forced to sell valuable items or tap into retirement accounts for needed cash.
Joel Palmer is a freelance writer and personal finance expert who focuses on the mortgage, insurance, financial services, and technology industries. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a business and financial reporter.
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