March 21, 2011
Unexpected veterinary bills often exceed what the average pet owner can finance with discretionary income.
In those cases, insurance often means that euthanasia isn’t the most humane option.
“A year and a half after we insured our dog, he was diagnosed with nasal cancer and given only a two-month prognosis without treatment,” says Barbara Borah of Glendale, Calif. “We researched our options and sent him to Colorado State University for radiation. Even though CSU charged less than half of its (usual) radiation fees, there is no way we could have afforded it without insurance.
“We are happy to report that our dog just celebrated his 17th birthday and has already survived twice as long as the Colorado vets estimated he would.”
Still, some pet owners find insurance for pets a superfluous cost and vow to start saving specifically for their pets’ veterinary expenses.
“People have good intentions of creating a savings account for their pet, but it rarely works out as they plan,” says Jack Stephens, DVM, founder and president of Pets Best Insurance in Boise, Idaho. “Depending on when the funds need to be pulled, you might not have enough to cover the bill. After a year of saving $50 a month, you’ll have only $600. And many times the saving never gets started, or funds are pulled for other expenses.”
According to the Pet Food Institute, the U.S. dog population is 67 million and the cat population is 87 million. Chris Middleton, director of marketing for Pets Best, says about 1 percent of the animal population, or 880,000 animals, are insured.
“A majority of pet owners get information about pet health insurance from their veterinarian, about 37 percent,” Middleton says. “About 58 percent of veterinarians recommend pet health insurance, and a recent study showed that 76 percent of veterinarians would like to see a wider use of pet health insurance.”
But some veterinarians still hesitate to discuss pet health insurance with clients, let alone recommend a particular company.
“Veterinarians are concerned that by recommending a product, they are violating their ethical code,” says Kristen Lynch, executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.
“We try to work with them to understand the nature of our product—that it is there to provide financial assistance—and it does not prevent them in any way from delivering the very best care to their patients, nor does recommending pet insurance violate their code.”
Medicine has advanced faster than owners’ ability to finance the various treatments. Some believe wider adoption of insurance would mean using those interventions at a higher rate nationwide.
“Pet insurance is a really good thing,” says Loreli Miller, DVM, of Animal ER of Mobile in Mobile, Ala.
“The problem is, it is generally so limiting that people can’t afford it or it excludes too many things, has too many loopholes. Pet owners need to investigate providers to ensure they’re investing in a company that will meet their specific needs and their pet’s medical needs.”
While Dr. Miller has some concerns about the viability of pet health insurance, she notes that some clients simply don’t qualify for certain types of credit.
“We have CareCredit,” Miller says. “It does help many who can’t pay for ER visits. And most vets take credit cards now, which is the only way most people can pay.”
Many people just don’t know about pet health insurance, and if veterinarians aren’t promoting it, Lynch says, it may never become an industry standard.
“If you consider what dental insurance has done for the dentistry profession, it’s easier to understand what pet insurance could do for the veterinary industry,” Lynch says.
“Today dentists can practice the very best level of care, can adopt new techniques and technologies as they are developed, because a great majority of their patients have the means to pay for their treatments. With an estimated 1 to 3 percent of pets in North America insured, there is reason to believe that as pet insurance grows in popularity and acceptance, so will the field of veterinary practice and the health of pets benefit.”
Bernadine Cruz, DVM, CVJ, associate veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Hills, Calif., describes herself as an “ardent proponent of pet health insurance,” adding that her practice displays insurance information in the lobby.
“When clients have decided to purchase a policy from a regional or private chain of veterinary care facilities is when I advise them to further investigate their choice,” Dr. Cruz says. “My concern is that [these companies] are not regulated by the insurance industry and may not meet the standards of the nationally known companies.”
A big concern among some veterinarians is the slippery slope—the prospect of introducing managed care into the profession.
“Historically some veterinarians have raised concerns about pet health insurance,” says Lisa Hockensmith, communications manager for the Hartville Group in Canton, Ohio, which offers ASPCA Pet Health Insurance.
“Rather than interfere with veterinarians’ relationship with clients, our goal is to help strengthen these ties,” Hockensmith says. Accident and illness coverage helps increase clients’ spending power so they can follow their veterinarians’ recommendations.”
Adds Cruz: “Colleagues who are concerned with pet health insurance are those who are uneducated about how it works.”
Pet insurance is indemnity coverage, and the contract is between the company and the client, not the veterinarian. The veterinarian practices medicine as he sees fit, the client pays the bill and is later reimbursed by the company.
“Once they have gone up the learning curve, they become advocates,” Cruz says.
The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study identified six root causes for the decline in veterinary visits over the past decade. Among them is the cost of veterinary care.
Brakke Consulting and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues also participated in the study. The findings were reported in January.
“Pet health insurance and third-party financing are essential [to easing the cost of veterinary care],” says Karen Felsted, CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, the chief executive officer of the NCVEI.
Owners’ inability to pay medical expenses is one reason animals find their way into shelters, says Ayse Dunlap, director of operations for the Cleveland Animal Protective League.
“We certainly see animals come to the shelter because the owner cannot afford the medical care,” Dunlap says. “Sometimes medical care is as simple as upkeep and other times it’s due to illness or injury.”
Some animal shelters—most with a Petfinder.com presence—offer a month of free pet health insurance upon an adoption. It is offered to extend the animal’s access to veterinary care and expose owners to the benefits of insurance.
“We started using our current pet health insurance program in 2007, and we’d been offering pet insurance prior to that,” Dunlap says. “We like to make sure that adopters have as many resources available to them as possible when they take a new pet home.
“However, there is still no way for us to guarantee the health of an animal after it leaves the building. So it’s nice to be able to provide adopters with insurance that will help them cover medical costs if they run into an issue.”
“There’s nothing out there that’s a perfect fit for everyone, but there will always be clients who just don’t have the money to treat their pets at the standard of care necessary. People aren’t always choosing not to spend the money on treating their animal; they might flat out not have it and the answer to that going forward will be pet health insurance.”
Dr. Felsted says a large percentage of pet owners simply can’t appreciate how much can go wrong with their pet or how much can be done for an animal that has pet health insurance.
“It’s not realistic for an owner to think that they’ll get pet health insurance and that every veterinary bill they have from that point on will be covered 100 percent,” Felsted says. “Veterinarians need to educate clients that pet health insurance is about managing risk, just like it is with auto or homeowners insurance, only they’re dealing with living things.”
Some veterinarians might be overwhelmed with the number of companies and policies available. Hockensmith says The Hartville Group recommends asking five questions to unveil companies’ inner workings.
“We suggest asking: ‘How are reimbursements paid?’; ‘What type of deductible is offered?’; ‘Is wellness coverage available?’; ‘What do insurers ask veterinarians to do?’; and ‘How much experience does the company have?’ ” Hockensmith says.
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