In recent years, pet insurance has really taken off and there seem to be more choices of policies than ever before. The myriad options can make it challenging for veterinarians to talk to their clients about what suits them best.
Still, their opinions matter and they are often the link between pet owners and insurance companies, so these talks will happen. After all, pet insurance is a solution to combat occupational stress and provide a financial planning solution for pet parents.
“Veterinarians can prepare pets and pet owners for long-term health with a breed consultation and a brief cost of care discussion,” says Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM, strategic sales representative at Pumpkin Pet Insurance in New York. “This opens up a conversation about pet insurance.”
Once the conversation starts, the four most common questions will likely be: “What does the insurance cover?” “How much will it cost?” “Will you accept the insurance?” and “Do I have to pay out of pocket first?”
Many pet parents tend to ask about insurance a bit later in their pets’ lives, versus right when they acquire them. This means there may be time for pre-existing conditions to accrue, and sometimes this equates coverage rates being higher.
Types of plans available
There is a huge knowledge gap when it comes to pet insurance. New pet parents may not know which critical features of the insurance plan they should seek. For example, clients might assume exams for accidents and illnesses would be covered, when in reality, office exams are not covered by some of the largest insurance providers.
While pet insurance offerings can vary from brand to brand, they can basically be classified into two groups—accident and illness, or the less expensive, accident only. The former will generally cover unexpected vet bills, but not routine medical exams or routine preventive care. The latter will cover emergency costs associated with an isolated accident, but will not cover costs associated with non-emergency illnesses, even if they are not due to a pre-existing condition.
There is also a class of plans, which are more comprehensive, called “accidental-illness with a wellness package.” These are the most expensive because the wellness package is offered as an add-on and will help pay for routine preventative care (i.e. vaccinations, fecal exams and deworming, special diets, etc.).
As more insurance companies have entered the market in the past few years, it seems like more options are also being offered to pet parents. Dr. Johnson recommends looking at what is covered, but understand what is not before choosing any plan
Most pet parents seeking comprehensive insurance plans are looking for something to provide coverage for office exams, rehabilitation therapy, prescription food, behavioral therapy, advanced diagnostics and therapeutics, as well as basic care for accidents and illness.
Advocating for insurance
Emily Tincher, DVM, director of veterinary relations at Nationwide Pet, Brea, Calif., notes veterinarians are busy so it is hard to find the time to familiarize themselves with all insurance options, but they should be able to talk knowledgably to pet owners about what they should be looking for when investigating insurance.
“The most important thing is to have options, because one size does not fit all for all pet parents,” she says. “There are a range of solutions out there, and pet owners need to figure out if they are looking for something comprehensive—something that pays for anything that comes up—or something that just helps for defraying major costs.”
Veterinarians are not “selling” insurance, and they should not go down the proverbial rabbit hole of coverage, as only a licensed insurance agent can speak about pet insurance coverage. However, they can be a champion of insurance and talk to clients about the benefits.
“While advocating for pet insurance, a veterinarian can provide focused printed and digital resources for clients to explore best-in-class pet insurance offerings,” Johnson says. “Printed resources can become outdated as policies change, making web resources—that are regularly updated—the most helpful.”
When discussing pet insurance, Zac Pilossoph, DVM, consulting veterinarian at Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, Bellevue, Wash., likes to talk with clients about his personal experience and how it has helped his clients.
“There are common features of pet insurance policies, such as deductibles, no coverage for pre-existing conditions and limits on what is covered, so I explain the basics to my clients and encourage them to do more research,” he says, calling out the site, www.mypetiscovered.com, which is helpful in explaining pet insurance without promoting any specific plan.”
Doug Kenney, DVM, a retired veterinarians who hosts the Pet Insurance Guide podcast, notes if a practice recommends one or more specific pet insurance companies to their clients, they should insure their own pets with the company and have some personal experience dealing with the company.
“Some veterinarians don’t want to recommend a specific company to their clients, but do want to make their clients aware of pet insurance as one of the options to help them pay for their pets’ healthcare expenses,” he says. “In this case, they just need to choose wisely, a website or other sources to send their clients to for accurate, non-biased information about pet insurance and how it works.”
Making the right choice
When choosing a plan, the majority of pet parents want quick and easy claims filing, excellent customer service—especially on weekends when most unexpected emergency trips occur, and reasonable pricing with different options for costs of coverage.
As head of the leadership team, it is valuable for practice owners to pause and look at the insurance brands that align with the level of care offered at their facility. Only then should one or more brands earn placement on the website, a mention in the puppy pack, or serve as a conversation starter in the examination room.
“I urge my veterinary colleagues to always look at what is not covered when evaluating a policy,” Johnson says.
Dr. Pilossoph recommends looking at how every pet insurance company is going to look first at pre-existing conditions and, oftentimes, the pet’s breed. These can affect the rates and future coverage.
“Insurance company transparency is key when deciding which to go with,” Pilossoph says. “Make sure to ask and understand every major detail, including how all charges are calculated and made (deductibles, premiums, co-pays, additional service add-on charges, etc.) as well as what will not be covered.”
Most pet insurance plans are reimbursement style. This means pet parents will still likely be responsible for paying the cost of care upfront, regardless of how much the cost may be. In addition, knowing the delay time between payment and reimbursement can be important for many families.
“Some insurance companies offer discounts if multiple animals are covered, so this could be a useful detail to look into if a household has several pets,” Pilossoph says.
Obviously, the cost of pet insurance is a major factor with most pet owners. However, choosing a company or policy with the lowest premium is not the best way to choose a company to insure their pet, Dr. Kenney says. The goal should be to choose a policy that yields the lowest out-of-pocket cost (including the premium) in case they face a large veterinary expense.
“Because clients don’t see what the veterinarian/veterinary staff sees every day, it may be hard for them to know what’s important when purchasing pet insurance,” Kenney says. “A veterinarian’s perspective on what should be covered in a pet insurance policy is valuable because he or she diagnoses and treats the problems that clients will end up filing claims for.”
A helping hand
Veterinarians will often be involved in the process, assisting with submitting a pet’s insurance claim, so the choice matters. Thankfully, many pet insurance companies have digitally streamlined the process and the veterinary team can support the pet parent through the journey easily.
While vets should not make any promises about what a plan will cover, they can lay out the pros and cons and share how it has helped other clients.
“Pay attention to those moments when pet insurance makes a positive difference for a customer and encourage your team to share those stories with other clients,” Pilossoph says. “Talking about these personal experiences about when insurance has helped result in a positive outcome and specifying which company(ies) most often are a part of these stories can help really bring the value of pet insurance to life.”
Nationwide Pet partners with the Veterinarian Business Management Association in providing pet insurance information to all students in veterinary schools to demystify what pet insurance is and helping them understand the ways they can talk with pet owners and help them understand the basics of pet insurance.
Most pet insurance companies will offer lunch-and-learn presentations to veterinarians and their staff to learn more about their policies and how to present it to clients. If a practice recommends a specific company to their clients, that pet insurance company’s website is a valuable source of information.
Pumpkin assists veterinary teams by providing an understanding of pet insurance to show how pet insurance can provide value to pets, pet owners, and veterinary hospitals. This education is provided at individual practices, regional DVM CE dinners, RACE-approved webinars and national conference booths.
“We also provide a robust pet health blog, share digital tools and host social media events to further educate pet parents,” Johnson says. “Pumpkin provides an educational client experience where pet parents learn about the differences in pet insurance brands and how to file a claim.”
While this education is helping to increase the number of people purchasing pet insurance, the numbers are still very low, with a market presentation of about three percent. As insurance companies evolve their offerings and vets continue championing for coverage, most believe more pets will be covered.
A graduate of the University of Miami, Keith Loria is a D.C.-based award-winning journalist who has been writing for major publications for close to 20 years on topics as diverse as veterinary medicine, travel, and entertainment. He started his career with the Associated Press and has held high editorial positions at publications aimed at healthcare, sports, and technology.