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This year, for the first time ever, graduate students will be able to purchase basic dental insurance through MIT.

Sign-up for the MIT graduate student dental plan, which charges a fixed annual fee and covers cleanings and checkups by in-network dentists, began Sunday at graddental.mit.edu, a Web site run by the Graduate Student Council. The deadline for plan enrollment is Sept. 15, 2008.

Insured and operated by Delta Dental of Massachusetts, the Delta Dental Preferred Provider Option Value plan costs $225.96 for individuals or $571.44 for families, and runs the entire year from Oct. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2009. Only graduate students and their families are eligible.

Similar to the Boston University plan that MIT students were shut out of last year, the MIT plan focuses on preventive care. Exams, cleanings, and x-rays are covered up to twice a year with no copay, as long as students use an in-network dentist. Other procedures, including fillings and emergency work, are offered at a slight discount, again, only if performed by an in-network dentist.

There are 100 in-network dentists within five miles of the 02139 zip code, according to the Delta Dental of Massachusetts Web site. MIT Dental is not one of them.

For checkups and cleanings by out-of-network dentists, the plan pays a small fraction; procedures by out-of-network dentists are not covered.

To enroll in the plan, students enter their name, date of birth, gender, and address on the graddental.mit.edu Web site. No social security number is asked for, a point negotiated by the GSC in deference to MIT’s many international students, some of whom do not yet have their numbers, or lack work provisions entirely. Registration ends on Sept. 15, after which students who have signed up will be locked into the plan and billed on their October account statement.

Most universities in the Boston area offer their graduate students some sort of dental insurance; MIT has long been an exception. The new MIT plan is identical to what Harvard offers its students (though Harvard charges about $10 more).

In previous years, students could also buy a dental plan run by the Boston University School of Dentistry, whose dentists-in-training would perform oral exams, cleanings, and x-rays. Fillings were also free. But last September, the BU plan closed its doors to the MIT community, leaving grad students in the lurch.

At that point, the GSC made obtaining affordable dental insurance a top priority, said Tanguy Chau G, last year’s GSC Housing and Community Affairs Committee co-chair.

Chau and Wang sent out a cost-of-living survey in October and found that 76 percent of graduate students did not have dental insurance. “That really told us that a lot of students need dental care,” Chau said.

Chau and co-chair Robert Wang G searched for coverage options, but really only considered the plan from Delta Dental, Chau said, even though services by MIT Dental would not be covered.

MIT Dental had been invited by Delta to become an in-network provider, but Chau said “it did not make financial sense” for MIT Dental to sign up.

Chau and Wang presented the plan to the Academic Council in January, alongside survey results showing that 72 percent of uninsured graduate students would like such a plan.

It wasn’t the first dental plan pitched to the administration over the years, but it was the first plan the administration found feasible — because Delta Dental and not MIT would bear the risk of insuring students.

Delta is the largest dental insurance provider in the nation, and offers several different types of coverage. MIT also uses it to administer its employee dental plan, which has more generous benefits and is necessarily self-insured by the Institute.

MIT declined to extend the employee dental plan to graduate students, believing it too risky, Chau said.

“It’s a bit of a tricky situation, the student population — it’s very different from the employee population,” Chau said. “Here we’re insuring people who come in and out in four years, and there are lots of international students, and people who do not necessarily have a history of dental care.”

A preventive care plan is less risky because it does not cover dental procedures. Students who come to MIT needing thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work will still end up shouldering most of the cost.

GSC President Oaz Nir wants full dental coverage for graduate students, and sees the current plan as a stepping stone to eventually getting it.

“The plan that we’ve achieved right now, it’s a good step forward, but it is only the first step,” Nir said. “[The current plan] provides diagnostic and preventive care. In order to get a comprehensive plan, it would have to be insured by MIT, and in order to work with MIT, we need to come up with reliable data about what services MIT students use.”

Reliable usage data are important for calculating dental premiums in a self-insured plan. The current plan will track these statistics, and help the GSC make a case for a comprehensive coverage in the future.

Dean for Graduate Education Steven R. Lerman ’72 wrote in an e-mail, “It’s impossible to say now what future dental coverage for grad students will be. We’re taking one step at a time.”

For now though, MIT students finally have a dental plan to call their own.