Here's something to sink your teeth into: discounted rates for dental work.
That's the promise of Brighter.com, an online company based in Santa Monica, Calif. that offers discounts of up to 60 percent off everything from root canals to teeth whitening to braces.
Launched in May, it aims to give consumers more educated choices when choosing, and paying for, dental care. Brighter.com representatives say it has a total of 25,000 participating dentists in every state except Florida, Montana and Vermont. Coverage is coordinated through Careington, a Texas-based provider of discounted dental, medical and vision plans.
Jake Winebaum, the entrepreneur who founded Brighter.com, said his father-in-law inspired the concept when he mentioned a dentist told him he needed three tooth implants -- at a cost of $6,800.
"He asked me, 'Is that a good price?' I had absolutely no comprehension of what dental costs were," recalls Winebaum, whose dental coverage was always provided through an employer. "I started researching."
A former Disney executive who's helped launch a number of Web-based companies, including Business.com, Winebaum said it's all about finding a problem and solving it.
Oral and dental disease, dubbed the "silent epidemic" by the U.S. surgeon general back in 2000, has been somewhat ignored in the recent debate over health care reform. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent more than $30 billion out of pocket on dental bills in 2008.
In a recession, when people have lost jobs and companies have raised health care premiums or cut back on benefits, dental care suffers. A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 16.5 million children nationwide go without even basic dental care each year. Similarly, most seniors on Medicare have no dental coverage.
"It's a big, big personal finance problem that doesn't get talked about much," said Winebaum.
Enter Brighter.com. Launched with $5 million in venture capital funding, the membership service gives individuals, families and small businesses access to what it says are lower-than-average prices for dental procedures, everything from routine cleanings to root canals.
A regular membership is $79 a year for a household or $245 for a small business with at least five employees. Both offer up to 60 percent off the average quoted price in a given ZIP code.
A free, 30-day trial membership offers slightly lower discounts of 20 to 30 percent.
The coverage is contracted through Careington, a Texas-based provider of dental and vision plans. The average price quotes are based on data from dental practice surveys, Winebaum said.
On the website, you type in your ZIP code to find the nearest participating dentists. You can compare prices for particular dental procedures. Dentists who are not offering discounts also are shown, to help those with insurance who want to make a choice based on proximity and reputation.
Winebaum said average dental care prices vary from state to state and from community to community, depending on competition among local dentists and patient demographics.
In most cases, Brighter.com members pay the discounted rate -- either in cash or by credit card -- at the time of their appointment.
The annual membership fee is Brighter.com's primary source of revenue. Winebaum said it does not take fees from the 25,000 participating dentists.
When asked to comment on Brighter.com, the California Dental Association (CDA) advised consumers to be cautious when choosing dental care by price alone.
"If consumers choose a dentist based on cost of services, they should educate themselves about the treatment plans and options they are being offered," said CDA spokeswoman Alicia Malaby in an email.
In other words, don't bite on a dental procedure until you've explored exactly what's being offered and how much it will cost.
Above all, ask questions. Get a price quote ahead of time and know exactly what's covered. If it's a procedure not covered by your dental insurance, such as cosmetic dentistry, consider asking for a discount if you pay cash.
It's what Winebaum calls the "know-before-you-go" information so you don't get sticker-shocked in the dentist's chair.
In the end, "It's about empowering consumers with the kind of information they need to make smart decisions with their dental care."