CVS moves into dental care with teeth-straightening service

Tom Murphy, AP Health Writer

Dental assistant Jessica Buendia looks at a scanned image of patient's teeth in SmileDirectClub's SmileShop located inside a CVS store Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Downey, Calif. CVS Health is venturing into dental care with plans to offer the relatively new teeth-straightening service. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

CVS Health is venturing into dental care with plans to offer a relatively new teeth-straightening service.

The drugstore chain said Thursday that it will add SmileDirectClub locations to hundreds of its stores, where customers can get started on getting their teeth straightened without an in-person visit with a dentist or orthodontist. That lack of an office visit has drawn criticism from orthodontists.

CVS Health and other drugstores have been pushing in recent years to add more services to their store locations, in part to help their customers stay healthy. They're also trying to attract customers for profitable beauty products and stave off competition like the online retail giant Amazon.com, which provides same-day delivery for many of the products that drugstores sell outside their pharmacies.

Under the CVS plan, customers get a 3D image of their mouth made by a SmileDirect employee at one of the drugstore locations. The image is sent to a dentist or orthodontist who approves the patient's treatment plan. Patients are shipped clear, removable aligners designed to straighten their teeth.

They check in remotely with a dentist or orthodontist, often by smartphone. The service costs $1,850 before insurance.

The American Association of Orthodontists has criticized the service, warning that in-person visits are important in this type of care. Dentists can spot gum disease during these visits and X-rays can detect bone loss not seen in a photo, the group's lawyer Sean Murphy said.

"Our concern is patient health and safety," Murphy said.

CVS Pharmacy President Kevin Hourican said he has no concerns about safety with SmileDirect, which he said provides a "high quality" product and limits care to patients who don't have complex dental needs.

SmileDirect spokeswoman Carrie Moore said the company, which started in 2014, has served more than half a million people. She said in an email that it is common for "traditional industry representatives to balk" when a new business model gains acceptance.

CVS Health also will add SmileDirect service as a covered option in the dental care network of its recently acquired Aetna health insurance business. Another insurer, UnitedHealthcare, announced a similar coverage expansion Thursday.

The SmileDirect locations will appear in only a small percentage of CVS Health's 9,800 retail locations nationally. But company officials say they may eventually expand to more than a thousand locations. The company started testing the approach in a few stores last fall.

CVS Health found in its pilot that the SmileDirect locations attracted younger, new customers.

"People want to improve their smile, and they feel better about themselves," Hourican said.