Study: Vets hold key to growing pet insurance

Actively promoting insurance inside the clinic would benefit pets and practices, NAPHIA says

Practitioners looking for a reason to actively recommend pet health insurance should consider this: The average policyholder spends $73 more a year on veterinary care for a dog and $118 more for a cat.

Those figures arose from a survey conducted by the North American Pet Health Insurance Association and unveiled this month at the AVMA convention in San Antonio.

The study found that many veterinary clients need only a gentle nudge to become policyholders. A stack of brochures in the waiting room doesn’t cut it. Verbal communication is crucial.

“A very large percentage of pet owners have not heard about pet insurance, so they’re not going to hear about it unless you tell them about it,” said John Volk of Brakke Consulting, which helped plan and execute the study.

Here is the American Veterinary Medical Association’s official policy regarding pet health insurance:

“The AVMA endorses the concept of pet health insurance that provides coverage to help defray the cost of veterinary medical care. The AVMA recognizes that viable pet health insurance programs will be important to the future of the veterinary profession’s ability to continue to provide high-quality and up-to-date veterinary service.”

The statement, available at, goes on to list what AVMA believes an insurance plan should include.

Pet health insurance has grown slowly in North America since VPI—now Nationwide—began offering coverage in the early 1980s. The industry today does more than $770 million in annual sales across the United States and Canada, but the penetration level is just 2 percent.

The rate is closer to 30 percent in the United Kingdom and over 40 percent in Sweden.

“There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is they have been doing it a lot longer—since the 1940s in the U.K. and the turn of the [last] century in Sweden,” said NAPHIA President Randy Valpy. “There are almost a hundred brands of pet insurance in the U.K., so the awareness level is far greater.”

North American pet owners can choose from more than a dozen insurance companies.

Do pet owners enroll to protect themselves from a big veterinary bill? Yes, but something else is at work, too.

Their primary motivation is “wanting to do whatever it takes to be a good pet owner,” Vaply said, referencing the survey of more than 600 pet owners.

Insured clients, he said, are repeat clients.

“The No. 1 reward for most veterinarians is they see their patients more often and their patients get better care,” Valpy said. “Those [surveyed] dog owners who had pet health insurance, compared to dog owners with a similar profile, spent 29 percent more at the veterinarian in a year’s time than those that did not have pet health insurance.”

About half of the pet owners surveyed would enroll in health insurance if only their veterinarian actively recommended it, the survey discovered. And while 56 percent of U.S. and Canadian practitioners said they wished more clients were insured, veterinarians are hesitant to act.

“Veterinarians are about as enthusiastic and confident about talking about pet health insurance as they are any financial topic—which is not very,” Volk said.

He suggested that knowledgeable staff members be assigned the task.

“Have a designated practice manager, head receptionist, hospital administrator—the person who talks about financial policies of the practice anyway,” Volk said.

Practices would do well to recommend just one or two insurers.

“Rather than having brochures from six companies, pick one,” he said. “If you have looked into two companies and you like that [second] company, maybe two. If you leave it up to the pet owner to sort through the 13 offerings out there, guess what? It ain’t gonna happen.”

In-clinic experts should be policyholders themselves, courtesy of their employer.

“The practice should buy policies for the two or three people in the practice that are the go-to people in pet health insurance,” Volk said. “Why? Because you want those people to be familiar, to have personal experience with it. That endorsement is very, very powerful with pet owners.”

Volk also recommended linking to an insurer through the clinic website.

Among other highlights in the separate surveys of pet owners and veterinarians:

  • The Internet is a pet owner’s top source of information about health insurance. Family and friends are second, followed by clinic brochures and veterinarians.
  • Just 24 percent of practitioners are “completely” comfortable talking to clients about pet health insurance.
  • Veterinarians don’t fear pet health insurance. Only 5 percent of practitioners think that having more insured clients would lead to managed care.
  • Insured dog owners spend an average of $324 a year on veterinary bills compared with $251 for non-enrolled dogs. The feline numbers are $264 with insurance and $146 without.
  • Two-thirds of insured pet owners signed up within six months of getting the animal, and 16 percent “after my first visit to the veterinarian.”
  • 42 percent of pet owners would be much more likely to enroll if their bill could be settled at checkout.

NAPHIA’s Valpy agreed that less paperwork would be best.

“There’s no doubt that as the industry progresses we have to make it easier for our customers … to transact with the pet insurance company,” he said, introducing an analogy to human dental care.

“If I go to my dentist, it’s all done electronically,” Valpy said. “If I owe a little bit, I pay that amount. The insurance company reimburses the dentist; the money is the account later that day or maybe the next day.

“We’ve got to move to that.”

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