How Much is Too Much for a Root Canal?

Son, be a dentist (son, be a dentist)Annabelle: What is a reasonable amount to pay for a root canal in NYC because I have to get one and HOLY SHIT

Ester: Oh no!

Annabelle: It is so expensive. Should I go to the suburbs?

Ester: :( :( :( You don’t have dental?

Annabelle: No. we don’t. [My boss] claims that dental insurance isn’t worth it/isn’t possible for small businesses. And I naively didn’t put nearly this much into my FSA. It’s $2,100!!!!

Ester: Oh wow.

Annabelle: Bonkers right.

Ester: Totally bonkers.

Annabelle: The economy of dental confounds me. Is dental insurance worth it? What is reasonable?

Ester: Totally. I would also love to turn this over to the ‘Folders and see if they have ideas. But yes, if you can stay overnight with your cousins in the suburbs and see an oral surgeon there it would almost certainly be less expensive.

Annabelle: Any advice would be great! Unless it is “go to student dentists at NYU in 3 months.”

Ester: Ha! No, I don’t think anyone will suggest that.

Annabelle: Because something about students and root canals feels wrong.

Ester: I’m with you.

Annabelle: The internet says that NYU is the answer. But really.

Ester: Also, don’t go to a place in midtown with a tooth flag flying outside. Do Not Repeat My Mistake.

Annabelle: Last time I went to a crazy Russian dentist in Kensington on Ocean Parkway who took a week to get x-rays developed. also a mistake. I kind of blame this root canal on him.

Ester: Blame your boss, too.

Annabelle: Yes, right.

Ester: Can you get dental insurance now somehow?

Annabelle: No. And it’s often capped anyway. I’m afraid of waiting too long.

Ester: OK! I will see what people suggest.


40 Comments / Post A Comment

snowe (#4,421)

My root canal & crown was about $1500 (in Alabama) so $2100 doesn’t seem too crazy considering the NYC markup?

It will get worse the longer you leave it, so it’s better to put it on a credit card than have a potentially dangerous abscess develop.

MollyAuden (#6,292)

IS dental really worth it? I looked into it recently and it seemed as though the premiums were high but the coverage they offered was not that great. Also, I remember that even though my dad has excellent health+vision+dental from his university, when he needed a bridge last year, he still had to pay several thousands dollars out of pocket.

@MollyAuden Yes, if only because you get access to better dentists, especially with a PPO plan. All the good dentists I’ve been to will only see you if you have some kind of insurance – if you have good teeth I guess it’s not that big a deal, but you never know (a la healthcare!) what might happen.

Dental insurance as a whole is really shitty. They usually pay for 50-100% of preventative care but then anything beyond fillings they either
a) pay for the older, less effective, not-as-long lasting option (ie, my insurance would have paid 100% for a bridge, 0% for an implant even though implants are unquestionably the better option [and ultimately cheaper for them!] for a mid-twenties person)
b) pay for a paltry percentage of either the older or newer option.

I was really pissed that the ACA didn’t include dental insurance. Really, dental care just needs to be wrapped up in health insurance – it’s like, what if healthcare didn’t include your left foot and you needed special left foot insurance?? Dental health is so important for your overall health, and sometimes can show when other things aren’t healthy before you as a human body can really tell….ugh! I get so angry just thinking about it.

A-M (#4,317)

Wait, you totally should look to see if there are students who need practice. It sounds scary, but they are all supervised by their instructors. It will be cheaper. Kind of like when you go to a swanky hair cut place downtown that can’t charge you (at all or full price) because their students need 1000 hours of practice. Look into it, maybe at Columbia as well?

prolol (#3,152)

also similar to when you go to any teaching hospital and the residents and students are being supervised by attendings! I mean, if you let residents and med students practice on you why not dental students? IDK, up to you! I’ve never had dental work done at a dental school.

burdock (#771)

@prolol I used to have dental work done at a dental school in Boston. Never again. The supervision means you have to sit forever with your mouth open while students run off to find someone to check their work. The instructors rotate and often don’t agree with each other, so if you are getting something done that takes multiple days the new instructor often makes them re-do work that the previous instructor ok’d. Also the instructors were really gruff and would just grab a drill without communicating with me at all. Two years later and I’ve needed to get 2/3 crowns that I had done there replaced.

azile (#6,014)

@burdock I had a very similar dental school experience. #neveragain is right. So dehumanizing. I would never, ever recommend it to anyone. And I AM someone who gets my hair cut at the hairdresser school because it’s $6 even though it takes 3 hours.

Can you see if they’ll take a payment plan? Granted, most root canals are done by regular dentists, but if you’re seeing an oral surgeon or someone who specializes in $$$ tooth procedures, they often let you stretch out payments. I’ve never done them, but maybe this is a good time to look into Care Credit or one of the other no-interest healthcare credit cards?

My root canal was around $2,000 in northern NJ I think, so yeah – that doesn’t sound so unreasonable. Sorry :/

Regarding dental insurance: I would check out your alumni association(s) to see if they offer group rates with a company, and a quick “finding dental insurance” search shows many companies do offer individual coverage too. Sometimes group rates are offered through other membership organizations that are easy to join (I’m thinking about the way you can join a credit union that’s supposedly limited to certain memberships but has loopholes…).

I pay $50/month for not-the-worst dental insurance; so far I haven’t had to use it except for my regular checkups but I’m glad it’s there!

cjm (#3,397)

@polka dots vs stripes I think a lot will take GE Care Credit. usually that is 0% interest for X months. However, if you make your last payment late, that interest they didn’t charge you is all compounded on to the balance.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@polka dots vs stripes I have just signed up for Care Credit, because I have a 12,000 dental bill. I could have written a check for it, but Care Credit does offer free financing for whatever period you select (since my bill is so high I could have stretched it out further). GE Capital Credit has a lot of complaints online, so I am making sure to stay on top of this one. But insurance capped out at $1500 per calendar year, and I am in too much pain to stretch this into the next calendar year!

emilia (#5,496)

So dental can be worth it, but only if it’s the right plan. I got a root canal recently after just having jumped onto my husband’s insurance which is stellar (he works for a union). In my urban area (Boston adjacent) the cost for the whole thing ended up being around $300 (including procedure and crown and everything). On my old insurance, it would have been closer to a grand. But honestly, I think my old-school union insurance is an anomaly. The receptionist checking me out redid the paperwork twice to make sure that it was correct, and told me never to divorce my husband because the dental insurance made it worth staying (not that I’m thinking about it anyway!).

emilia (#5,496)

@emilia Also, sorry that this is totally unhelpful in your situation. When I was uninsured and had to get major dental work done, I ended up taking out a CareCredit card ( through the dentist’s office and repaying before any interest accrued. It worked for me, although it might not be the right solution for you.

@emilia Ugh I feel pathetic but one of the reasons I am really, really looking forward to getting married is my partner’s baller dental insurance and HSA.

emilia (#5,496)

@polka dots vs stripes No shame. It’s a surprisingly useful benefit (in addition to the loving partner for life thing) and you wouldn’t be the first!

bananakarenina (#7,402)

@polka dots vs stripes I hear you! I’m trying to convince my live-in boyfriend that we should get married sooner rather than later because I work for a major hospital and thus my insurance is way better than his. He’s a romantic, though, and wants to wait. He also wants to wait until we can afford to buy a house, so never mind, I’m probably never getting married…

ccq (#1,175)

@bananakarenina check in with your insurance. when my SO and i were living together before we got married, i was able to get on his plan through like a domestic partnership provision. we just had to sign some papers and provide proof that we were living together. might be worth looking into. we got married later but this just gave us some peace of mind until then!

@fo (#839)

Delta sez that an individual plan for an inidividual living in Manhattan is $123:

It sez that the coverage would start 9/1, and that there is no waiting period for a root canal. Sez that a RC from a participating endodontist is $400.

Now, it may well be that the only ‘network’ providers work with Dr. Wolfe of Painless Dentistry (formerly Painful Dentistry), and it may also be that my 60 seconds of research did not find an obvious exclusion applicable to Annabelle, but seems like it is worth some research.

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

I don’t know how FSAs work, but my HSA lets me make contributions and reimburse myself after the fact. Maybe look into your specific terms?

@fo (#839)


Can only have an HSA if you have a high deductible plan. FSA is annual use it/lose it, and can only be increased during the plan year for life event changes.

For the comment upthread about ‘baller HSA’–HSA is only in conjunction with a significant *reduction* in coverage from a traditional PPO/HMO coverage plan. An HSA is *great* if you have essentially zero medical needs, and decent if you have a *ton*, but basically has a doughnut hole for those with ‘maintenance’ prescriptions, or a handful of annual visits to the doc.

@wrappedupinbooks Maybe I used the wrong term, but either way my partner has a savings account to be used for medical & dental care that has some uncommon perks that make it better than a standard HSA/FSA. His PPO plan is also top notch. BUT, while I am unnecessarily taking your comment personally, I do want to genuinely thank you for clarifying my flippant comment.

@fo (#839)

@polka dots vs stripes

It’s a fricking confusing mess of acronyms, so I was just trying to clarify, so apologies for phrasing such that it could be taken personally. So, further to the clarifying point:

–With a PPO plan, that is not a ‘high deductible’ plan, would be an FSA.

–A ‘high deductible’ plan usually is (in effect) a PPO, bc you can go to whoever, and then you can have an HSA.

–A ‘high deductible’ plan is not really the ‘union’-type, gold-plated, coverage that I would consider ‘good’ if I had a baller-type, C-Level, job. That would be an expansive PPO plan, where I pay $10 to see a doc for a stuffy nose, or for a heart transplant. My actual high deductible plan is actually pretty decent for the heart transplant–it would end up costing a total of $10,500 (plus the monthly premium), but it stinks if the 4 of use go to the doctor a total of 10 times, bc that would cost about $2,500, and 100% out of pocket.

–HSAs are essentially a secondary retirement saving device, so long as you don’t need much medical care, bc you get an above-the-line deduction (*not* limited by income) and get tax free growth, and can withdraw for other purposes after a certain age–not that you won’t have some medical costs then.

*very* curious what the “better than standard” perks are, bc I want to know what I should bug the company about adding.

@@fo Oh no, I just meant I was being petty and taking something personally that rationally I’m sure you just meant as a statement of fact, and not to attack me, but it’s the internet, so why not take things personally that you shouldn’t??

The biggest “perk” that I’m aware (it’s my partner’s plan so I’m not sure of the entire specifics) is that he has some kind of account he can use for medical expenses that he doesn’t pay into. I call it his slush fund. I don’t know, maybe that is a standard kind of fund?

nerdalert (#7,401)

I AM SO MANY THOUGHTS ABOUT DENTAL COVERAGE. I worked at a brokerage firm and had to manage our last self-funded dental plan, the training for which literally included, “Well, just pick a percentage; we don’t have any official rates or anything, but just assume that only 85-90% of the cost should be covered. There was a network at some point, but we stopped paying for access to the software, so I’ve just been making it up.” I had to fight my boss just to get a schedule book that tells you what a procedure should cost based on area code because I got tired of not being able to explain why a $2000 root canal was only being covered at $1895.

OH and your cost of $2100 sounds reasonable (like comparatively reasonable, not actually reasonable).

PicNic (#3,760)

as someone who has put at least $10,000 into her mouth in the last 6 years, I have a lot of feelings on all of this.

1. dental insurance DOES suck. Mine is considered pretty good and it pays 100% preventative (cleanings/x-rays) and then 80% major restorative (root canals etc), and 50% something else etc. There’s a $3,000 cap though. So say I get a bunch of root canals, it will pay up to 80%/root canal, but only so long as the total they pay doesn’t surpass $3k a year. After that it’s 100% out of my pocket, or I wait until the following year to get the root canal.

2. the $2,100 you were quoted might not include the crown, and is just for the root canal itself. I’m in Boston and was quoted $2,000 just for a crown.

3. the students at dental school are actually really great! no one that doesn’t know what they’re doing is going to do ANYTHING to your face. Also – you can go to a dental school and still request to have your root canal done by a faculty/full doctor and then it will just be a student watching. It’s SO MUCH CHEAPER!

4. if you have even half-way decent credit, you can take out a “Care credit loan” which is an actual healthcare loan and has a really low interest rate, and could potentially also be a good way to build additional good credit.

5. yes, dental work in the suburbs is somewhat cheaper, and might be worth the trek.

bananakarenina (#7,402)

Been reading the Billfold for awhile, but I created an account just to say that this exact situation happened to me.

Was living in NYC, sans insurance, when I popped a filling and went to NYU’s dental school to check it out, figuring I’d pay the $90 exam fee plus the filling replacement cost. After the long long appointment, the student informed me that the cavity was massive and very near the nerve and I’d need one, if not two, root canals. $800 each, through NYU! Plus probably more for the crowns! SUCH A DEAL FOR ONE SO YOUNG AND BROKE.

My advice: Walk back to your office in Chelsea, call your mother in Ohio, cry a lot on the phone. That’s what I did! Also, be under 26 when Obamacare became a thing. That’s really what I did.

For serious, though, because I was 23/24 I ended up back on my parents’ insurances, and long story short, eventually received an emergency root canal in Manhattan 5 months after my diagnosis at NYU.

If you’re under the age of 26, see if you can, by any stretch, get on your parents’ insurance. (And then send Obama a fruit basket or something. I seriously considered it.) If not: call around if you don’t want NYU’s students to do it–though they do work under full-fledged licensed dentists. Ask friends if they like their dentists. Go to a dentist with a private practice, who studied at a reputable school. Talk to their secretaries/admin people as well. They’ll probably know the ins and outs of billing, or know of payment plans, etc.

Finally: ask if it’s advisable to do JUST the root canal. It will leave you with a weak tooth that you should keep an eye on, but that way you can save up to get the crown to put on said weak tooth. (After you’re finished paying for the root canal, of course…)

My newly-acquired dental insurance only covered crowns if I was on the insurance for 1 year (??) and so I had to wait a full year with a root-canaled tooth before getting my shiny new crown.

I didn’t have to pay thousands of dollars for it, though, so all in all, success. (Root canal ended up costing about $120 after my dentist back in Ohio wasted a bunch of my $1000-limit insurance on needless fillings, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Sorry for the long-winded comment, but I have a lot of Feelings on the matter! Good luck!!

Trilby (#191)

The best thing about dental ins. is that dentists who are “in-network” agree to accept the negotiated reimbursements from the insurer, which are usually way lower than “retail” prices. My dentist is not in-network but he accepts the ins. company’s reimbursement amount anyway(usually half of retail price tag) and doesn’t balance bill me. Balance billing is when a dentist makes you pay all the amount the ins. co. doesn’t cover.

As I write this I realize I don’t completely understand the difference to me, having a dentist who is outside my network… The premiums for me and my son are $38/mo, and the insurance covers $1500 worth of reimbursements per year. There’s a better plan which allows $2500 worth of dentistry per year.

limenotapple (#1,748)

This is really relevant to my needs. I have to get 3 root canals and one extraction and one implant because I am a total wuss who has not gone to the dentist in 15 years and oh did I mention I am also a night grinder? My insurance caps out its payment per year at $1500. It totally blows. I can finance it through Care Credit for free for up to two years, which is nice, I guess, but I’d still rather go on a fancy vacation.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@limenotapple Also I’m paying an extra $300 to be knocked the hell out. see the part about being a total wuss.

amanda w. (#7,091)

I’m sure that I’m on the road to a root canal due to having sketchy teeth (thanks parents!) so I’ve done a bit of preemptive googling on dental tourism. I’ll probably have my major dental work done in Mexico or Thailand or something. Globalization at its finest!

Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

Reading this and thinking “I should really start flossing regularly.”

ccq (#1,175)

@Liz the Lemur do ittt

clo (#4,196)

this is the dentist my entire family has been going to for like 30 years: he is accessible by metro north. although his bedside manner leaves something to be desired, he obviously is very experienced and always works with patients to get them the lowest prices and maximum reimbursements from insurance. he is by far the least expensive dentist i’ve ever dealt with.

There are these things called dental discount plans. They are not insurance plans but you pay $80-150 per year for them and they give you access to prenegotiated discounted rates on dental services. Not all dental providers accept them and I have no idea if they offer reduced rates for something like a root canal. I had one of these discount plans once, and it was sort of worth it – I think I paid $90 for the year and planned to use it on my two annual cleanings to save about $100 each time. I used it once and then got a job with dental insurance and didn’t have to use it again, so I lost money but my plan was good! Google dental+discount+plan+yourstatename and a bunch of results should come up, they are generally offered by tons of insurance companies.

SnarlFurillo (#2,538)

If that is the price for the root canal AND the crown, you can split them up and get the root canal at the “regular” dentist, and then get the crown done at NYU if you like.

If you do split the work up and your FSA resets on January 1, remember that the FULL balance is available to you immediately. So you can decide to set aside $1200/year, contribute $100 from your January paycheck, but have $1200 available that same pay period and spend it all on the crown. That’s how I paid for my (FIRST) crown- my tooth was nice enough to wait until Thanksgiving to die. Thanks, little tooth.

You can definitely wait the four-ish months between root canal and crown- if you ask nicely, your dentist might put a free or cheap temporary crown on for the duration.

Def ask if your dentist will offer a cash discount- I got $150 or so knocked off my second root canal because I didn’t have insurance. I think I actually handed the receptionist nine brand-new hundos. HIGH ROLLER OVER HERE.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Real talk about that student thing at NYU:

My husband just graduated from the dental hygiene program at UNC Chapel Hill, and during his time he worked very closely with lots of dental students and graduate dental students. Student dentists (and dental hygienists) are VERY closely screened by their professors and are rarely allowed to make a move without having it approved. So don’t frown upon student care — it is often much cheaper but just as good as what you’d get in a normal office and, sometimes, even better because the students have to meet exacting standards and specifications laid forth by the faculty. I can’t speak to NYU’s school, but from everything my husband told me about UNC, it was an incredible program that provided top-notch care–even from the students–to anyone who visited. Including people who were in for root canals.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

Then the answer is go to the student dentists at Rutgers in NJ or Columbia.

In all seriousness, I both get and don’t get the trepidation of patients with getting care from a clinician-in-training. That time when you refused to turn down and ended up with a sprained ankle and at Beth Israel? Evaluated and treated by a Mt Sinai student. Or when your vague abdominal pain turned out to be your appendix saying #girlBYE and you end up at Presbyterian? Operated on by a general surgery resident with the assistance of a Columbia med student. Or god forbid, that mysterious lump you found on your self-check turns out to be the dreaded C word? Irradiated by a Rad Onc resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering who developed the treatment plan with a Cornell med student.

Hell, if you choose any fancy hospital for your care (which are invariably teaching hospitals), you will be care for by a clinician-in-training. Yes, even the birthing of the fruit of your loins. By getting care from a student dentist, you are cared for by someone who is especially keyed-in on doing it right exactly because at that point in their training nothing is boilerplate. NOTHING. And you have the benefit of having their work double-checked by someone with the experience… as they’re doing it. And at a price that you can afford (or at least at one that is vastly closer to what you can afford than the market rate is).

Really the only downside here–one that as a former NYU dental patient I am intimately aware of–are the glacial appointments and required repeated visits. What takes 2 visits in a private clinic takes 4 or 5 at a dental school. But, until I get a job that allows me to drop that allows me to drop thousands on dental care, to the schools I go.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

Just came here to say I had trouble reading Ester’s wisdom tooth article and remaining composed at work. Hilarious and I can relate to doing this procedure awake. It was really ok until the tooth where I didn’t get enough novocaine.

@RiffRandell THANK YOU the only thing that makes my pain worthwhile (in retrospect) is other people reading & laughing about it afterwards

I had a root canal done by an endodontist, not an oral surgeon. Mine was done almost 10 years ago for $945 in Greensboro, NC, so I have no idea if $2100 is reasonable in NYC today. But check with an endodontist if you have only checked with an oral surgeon so far! Their training is at least a little different, and an endodontist should have more experience with root canals.

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