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Delta Dental stretches lead


Delta Dental Plan of Iowa, spun off from health insurance giant Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa four years ago, is proving that it’s possible to both provide exceptional care for workers and boost revenues.

The Ankeny-based company, whose 20 percent share of the Iowa dental insurance market makes it the state’s largest, last month was recognized by Principal Financial Group Inc. as one of the 10 best small companies in the country when it comes to looking out for the financial security of its employees. Des Moines-based Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Company of Iowa was also among the top 10.

Much of Delta Dental’s short life has been charmed. When it left Wellmark in 1999, it was already the state’s biggest dental insurer. Its roughly 60 employees were experienced, making them more productive and saving the company money it would otherwise have had to spend on training.

Under Chief Executive Donn Hutchins, a former sporting goods executive who joined the company shortly after it left Wellmark, Delta Dental has continued to add to its lead. Part of the reason for the growth is that the insurer is targeting companies of all sizes.

“If there’s a dental business in Iowa, we’re interested,” Hutchins said. “We’re interested in all of them.”

That strategy has paid off. About 93 percent of Iowa’s dentists are part of Delta Dental’s current coverage network, said Hutchins. The company’s premium revenues rose to $128 million last year, up 64 percent from 1999. The number of subscribers rose 36 percent to 280,000 during the same three-year period.

Delta Dental’s premium revenue per employee that Delta Dental handles has doubled since it left Wellmark, Hutchins said. Part of the reason is the amount of money that the company has spent investing in computers and new techniques to process dental claims electronically.

Hutchins said 40 percent of all claims are done electronically, double the rate in 1999 and higher than the national average of 33 percent for dental insurers.

The company also is cutting administrative costs. In 1999, administrative expenses were 10.8 percent. By 2002, they had dropped to 7.7 percent, Hutchins said.

Since leaving Wellmark, Delta Dental has had some success in signing new large customers, including Maytag Corp., Pella Corp. and Aegon NV. Part of insurer’s ability to win big accounts stems from its participation in the Delta Dental Plans Association, whose members companies provide dental coverage to 170 million Americans and is by far the largest dental insurance group in the country.

The membership means that Maytag employees in other states can get access to the same level of dental coverage that Newton employees receive without creating more paperwork and a need for different plans and administrators, which could drive up costs for Maytag.

Delta Dental is also getting a boost from the knowledge, contacts and expertise of Ed Schooley, a trained dentist who currently serves as Delta Dental’s vice president and dental director.

Before joining Delta Dental, Schooley was dental director at Aetna Inc. On March 25, he was elected president of the American Association of Dental Consultants, a term that began last month.

Delta Dental doesn’t have a formal pension plan, but its generous benefits package includes a 50 percent match on employee 401(k) plan contributions. It also gives its workers a year-end bonus equal to 5 percent of their salary’s that must be put toward retirement.

Those perks have led to 100 percent participation among workers in Delta Dental’s retirement plans and are a big part of the reason Principal chose the company as one of the 10 best at looking out for workers’ financial security. It is the second time that Principal, the nation’s largest manager of 401(k) retirement plans, compiled its 10 best list.

Delta Dental has been developing new programs to help rural areas in Iowa by encouraging dentists to move to small towns. The Iowa Department of Public Health has said that three-quarters of Iowa’s counties are facing a shortage of dentists.

To alleviate the shortage, Delta Dental established a plan last year that promises to provide newly trained dentists, who often graduate with more than $100,000 in education-related debts, with $50,000 over three years to repay those debts if they move to rural areas. Six dentists participated in the program last year. Eight or more could enter the program this year, Hutchins said.

Delta Dental also offers free language translation services, via telephone, to more than 800 dental offices across the state.

“We’ve proven we can grow and we’ve proven we can succeed,” Hutchins said. “These are questions we didn’t know the answer to four years ago.”  

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