Hefty vet bills quickly make new believers in pet health insurance

Lyons resident Theresa Coble hadn’t considered pet health insurance until last summer when her chocolate lab, Kili, was bitten by a rattlesnake. One vile of antivenom cost $400. The entire bill exceeded $1,000.

Coble then obtained a brochure for a company called Veterinary Pet Insurance Inc. at the Longmont Animal Emergency Center. Now, whenever her dog’s treatment costs exceed a $50 per incident deductible, Coble gets up to 90 percent reimbursement, and her premiums remain at less than $20 per month.

?It’s a safety net,? Coble said. ?You become the insurance processor. The vet fills out the form and signs it, and it’s kind of up to you.?

Health insurance for companion animals is not a new concept. In fact, according to Aine McCarthy, director of veterinary services at Veterinary Pet Insurance, animal health insurance began in Europe nearly 30 years ago. McCarthy added that while nearly 20 percent of pet owners in the United Kingdom have pet insurance, less than one-half of one percent of pet owners in the United States carries such coverage.

Veterinarian Robert J. Silver, owner of Holistic Wellness Center PC, which operates Boulder’s Natural Animal, said he has seen an increase in the number of claims submitted as pet health insurance companies obtain new underwriters and expand their offerings. He estimated that he signed 25 to 30 claim forms last year. ?I hate having to euthanize an animal just because people can’t afford treatment,? he said. ?One of the reasons I find Boulder so attractive,? he added, ?is that people are willing to spend out of pocket for their animals.?

Just like with health insurance for humans, not all pet health insurance companies work the same way. For example, Veterinary Pet covers dogs, cats, small mammals, birds, reptiles and exotic pets. However, it does not cover insects, farm or material producing animals. It also does not cover congenital or inherited conditions. The company does not cover vaccinations, routine care, teeth cleaning or spay/neuter services unless clients purchase an additional rider, which increases their monthly premium.

With Veterinary Pet, however, there are no co-payments, no lifetime capitation and no insurance cards to present at time of service. Founded in California in 1980, Veterinary Pet is the oldest and largest pet insurance company in the United States, with 340,000 policies in force.

Veterinary Pet-insured pet owners can visit any licensed veterinarian worldwide, submit a claim form signed by their veterinarian and an itemized receipt and in less than two weeks the pet owner receives a reimbursement check for some of the treatment costs. Owners of two or three enrolled pets get a 5 percent discount on their premium. Prescriptions also are covered under their higher premium ?superior? plan. Even complementary, holistic or alternative treatments are covered as long as they are performed by a licensed veterinarian in response to a primary diagnosis.

Pet Assure Holdings Inc., for example, works more like a health maintenance organization with specific veterinarians and specialists in a network. As long as consumers get their medications and treatments within the network, they automatically save 25 percent on the full vet bill at the time of service. Unlike Veterinary Pet or other pet insurance companies, Pet Assure has no exclusions based on age, preexisting conditions or conditions inherent in a particular breed.

Its coverage does not include food, grooming, boarding, flea products or outside services (e.g. sending blood work outside the network). It does cover routine exams, shots, teeth cleaning and surgery. This company, which began operations in 1995, has 100,000 clients, and company officials anticipate doubling their client base within the next three months.

All companion animals are covered with Pet Assure, as well. Farm animals do not receive coverage. Generally, Pet Assure costs $99 per year, per pet. Cats and rabbits, however, are only $59 per year. If a person has two to four animals, he pays $149 per year. Because typical pet insurance pays between 50 to 90 percent per incident, and Pet Assure pays $25 per visit, the two types of products can be used simultaneously.

Tina Valgemae, vice president of operations at Pet Assure, said there are no co-pays, no deductibles, no claim forms and no HMO referrals (clients simply choose a specialist within the 2,400 veterinarian network). Though there are participating veterinarians in Westminster, Thornton and Denver, there are currently no veterinarians in the network in Boulder or Broomfield counties.

PetCare Insurance Agency Ltd. is Veterinary Pet’s largest competitor. The company serves the United States and Canada and was founded in 1999. Marketing Manager Amanda Coady attributes their success to the fact that they are a private labeled co-branding company and partner with companies for distribution.

For example, Petco Stores and Petfinder.com are just some of the companies that promote pet health insurance using Pet Care Insurance Agency. Coady estimated that PetCare gains a percent of the market share every week to two weeks. ?We don’t focus on our own brand,? she said. ?We would like to leverage the recognition of our partners.?

The parent company, Pet Health Inc., can be found on the Toronto Stock Exchange with ticker symbol PTZ. By the end of March, Pet Health had just under 73,000 customers throughout the United States and Canada. PetCare only covers cats and dogs. There is no plan to ever include other animals.

As with Veterinary Pet, the deductible is approximately $50 per incident, and clients must pay the veterinarian at the time of service and wait for reimbursement. With PetCare, there is a maximum lifetime capitation per body region. The lifetime capitation amount varies depending on the program the client chooses.

PetCare covers medications, X-rays, surgery, hospitalization, alternative treatments, CAT scans, chemotherapy and diagnostic testing. It does not cover routine checkups or vaccinations. PetCare does cover hereditary and congenital defects like hip dysplasia; however, it does not cover conditions that existed in the animal prior to enrollment.

Navigating the pet insurance industry can be almost as complicated as selecting a human health insurance policy. Yet, for some pet owners, it may be worth the effort. As Coady concluded, ?Advances in veterinary care are such that the treatments available to animals are now comparable to treatments for people. However, that comes at a cost. That’s where pet insurance comes in.?Contact Sheryl Bass at(303) 440-4950 or e-mail research@bcbr.com.