By Patricia Reynolds
Business Journal Writer
As the heated political debate over healthcare continues to rage, a small but growing segment of Americans are obtaining health insurance for the non-human members of their families.
Pet insurance has been available in the United States for decades, but it has not caught on here as in Europe, where 30 to 40 percent of pet owners hold policies for their animals.
“Even though about 36 percent of U.S. households have dogs and 30 percent have cats, only about 1 percent of all American pet owners have medical insurance for their pets,” said Marissa Villegas, Communications Specialists for Trupanion, a medical insurance provider for cats and dogs. “While the numbers are growing, there are still millions of pet owners who have yet to insure their pet’s veterinary needs.”
Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) was the first US-based pet insurance provider. Launched by a veterinarian, VPI was acquired by Nationwide Insurance in 2009.
“Nationwide, formerly Veterinary Pet Insurance, issued the very first pet insurance policy in the United States in 1982 to TV’s ‘Lassie,’” said Scott Liles, President and Chief Pet Insurance Officer for Nationwide.
Today, pet owners can choose from a variety of plans with varying coverage from several providers including Trupanion, Nationwide, Healthy Paws and Pets Best.
The benefits of having pet insurance are increasing along with the cost of veterinary medicine.
“Veterinary care has evolved greatly over the years. Many treatment options we have for humans can now be done to save the lives of our pets,” Liles said. “As such, these treatments can run into the thousands of dollars and pet insurance can offset these costs.”
Robert Segura, Trupanion Territory Partner, Northern California, says pet insurance has saved his clients thousands of dollars.
“I’ve personally had in my region at UC Davis, a dog that was $45,000. We reimbursed $40,000 and that dog lived,” he said. “It was a 3-year-old border collie named Chief, and it got a spinal contusion out camping with its pet parents. They rushed it to UC, and it was in the doggy ICU.”
Other cases of Segura’s included a dog with malignant lymphoma whose treatment cost $29,000 and a dog with sepsis that incurred $12,000 in expenses.
Because Trupanion’s pet policy covers 90 percent of unexpected veterinary costs associated with eligible injuries and illnesses in cats and dogs, these pet owners were reimbursed $25,000 and $12,682 respectively.
“We encourage people to get pet health insurance, period. And the reason we recommend is it allows us to be better doctors,” said Dr. Cheryl Waterhouse, Veterinarian and Practice Owner of Waterhouse Animal Hospital in Fresno. “People aren’t having to make some really heart rending decisions sometimes just because they can’t afford full cost of care.”
Waterhouse is such a big proponent of pet insurance that not only does she hold policies for her own dogs, she also offers pet insurance to her employees so that they have access to specialty and emergency care.
“It’s an emerging trend for veterinarians to offer that to their staff,” she said.
Providing pet insurance to employees can be a cost-effective way for companies to enhance benefits packages.
“With the cost of core benefits on the rise, companies are looking for offerings that can be added to a benefits portfolio at no expense to the employer,” Liles said. “Offering pet insurance as a voluntary benefit appeals to prospective pet lovers and helps retain current pet-owning employees.”
According to Liles, nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies offer pet insurance from Nationwide and more than 5,500 companies and associations in the U.S. offer pet insurance from Nationwide as a voluntary benefit.
When choosing insurance for a pet, Waterhouse recommends that pet owners scrutinize the various policy options.
“They’re all a little different in what they cover and some of them get a little tricky. I actually have a handout on questions to ask a pet insurance company,” she said.
Trupanion focuses on covering unexpected injuries and illness for cats and dogs from the age of eight weeks. Pets can be enrolled until one day before turning 14 years old.
Through Trupanion Express, veterinarians are paid directly so clients pay only 10 percent of the bill at time of treatment.
Nationwide offers a variety of policies and its most popular plan is called Whole Pet with Wellness.
“It is the only pet health insurance plan on the market today that includes coverage for injury, accident, illness and wellness care such as vaccinations, flea/tick control, heartworm meds, annual exam, dental cleanings, spay/neuter in its base plan,” Liles said.
Nationwide also offers coverage for birds and exotic pets including hamsters, guinea pigs, a variety of snakes and lizards and pot-bellied pigs.
Neither Nationwide nor Trupanion offer equine insurance.
Still, according to Waterhouse, the benefits of having pet insurance are realized most when catastrophe strikes.
“People don’t need pet health insurance for just covering vaccines and regular routine stuff. They need it for the big stuff,” she said.