Pet health insurance is useful, but comes with a price


Caring for a pet can be an expensive proposition, particularly on Martha’s Vineyard where costs for any type of medical care run above the national average. Increasingly, pet owners are turning to insurance designed specifically for animals.

Pet health insurance, according to Times columnist and veterinarian Michelle Jasny, functions more like property insurance than human health insurance. The main focus is on situations when the property, or the pet, is damaged by accident, injury, or illness. Depending on the age and breed of the animal, the annual cost of pet health insurance can range anywhere between around $100 and upward of $1000.

In a telephone conversation recently, Ms. Jasny said that pet insurance is “a nice thing to have if your cash flow allows it. If you can afford to pay the regular premium then it certainly is a good idea.”

As ideal as it would be for all owners to be able to provide their pets with insurance, for some people that is not a option. “It’s always nice if an animal can get optimum care, but for some people it’s not a financial reality. If you choose to have a pet, you should be able to afford routine health care, but no one should feel guilty if they don’t have the finances to do heroic measures for their pets,” Ms. Jasny said.

In a letter to the editor published on August 5, Janet Zeller described her own quandry. She described her response to one of Dr. Jasny’s weekly columns. In the column, Visiting Veterinarian: spinal cord injuries, the animal was in need of a very expensive treatment that the owners were able to afford and provide for the dog.

Ms. Zeller wrote, “It is wonderful that Franny the greyhound’s owners could afford the huge price of her treatment, but 99.9 percent of equally loving and willing-to-go-the-distance pet owners could never shoulder the herculean expenditure involved on this dog’s behalf.” Ms. Zeller said that her solution was to turn to Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), a company based in La Brea, CA. She said that for $300 a year, the company provided excellent coverage and allowed her to seek treatment from any vet. She said making a claim is extremely easy, and that she would “highly recommend this solution for every pet owner.”

The Times, intrigued by Ms. Zeller’s letter, did some research on some of the pet health insurance companies.

The company Ms. Zeller recommended, Veterinary Pet Insurance, has two pet health care plans, the VPI standard plan and the VPI superior plan. According to the website, the VPI superior plan offers comprehensive health protection for dogs. Owners will receive the highest reimbursement for accidental injuries, emergencies and illnesses, including cancer. This plan provides for those seeking maximum reimbursement for their pet’s veterinary treatments. The VPI standard plan is designed for pet owners who want peace of mind but seek more affordable premiums. The plan offers a moderate level of reimbursement for accidental injuries, emergencies and illnesses, including cancer. Both plans cover accident, illness, lab tests, surgeries, cancer, prescriptions, and hospitalizations.

Another company, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, says on its website,”Pet health insurance helps you pay your veterinary bills for your dog or cat. It can help make sure you never have to choose between your pet’s wellbeing and your personal finances.” The ASPCA allows owners to use any licensed veterinarian in the US or in Canada. To submit a claim, all the owner needs to do is fill out the one-page claim form and then fax, mail, or email it to the ASPCA with the receipts from the vet’s office. Insurance from this particular company can cost anywhere from $132 annually to more than $1000 annually, depending on the age and breed of the animal and which level of coverage the owner chooses. Each level offers 80 percent reimbursement of usual and customary charges for all levels, $100 annual deductible per pet, 10 percent discounts on multiple pets, and a 30-day money back guarantee.

Ms. Jasny addressed the issue of pet insurance in a column published in summer 2007.

She wrote that routine expenses such as vaccinations, worming, and heartworm pills are not covered, except in plans where the owner would pay extra for that benefit. The older the animal is, she writes, the higher the premium, and the cost of the premium can also be affected by where the owner lives, as well as the average veterinary fees in the owner’s area. Most policies exclude congenital, hereditary, and preexisting conditions, and carry deductibles, co-pays and annual caps.

Ms. Jasney recommended that pet owners research pet health insurance companies as much as possible before committing to one.

Unlike human health plans, where the doctor is very much involved in the process of obtaining the insurance, with pet insurance the veterinarians are generally kept out of the loop. Pet health insurance is a contract between the pet owner and the insurance company, Ms. Jasny told The Times. All the veterinarian has to do is fill in a diagnosis on a form and hand the owner the bill. That is the extent of the vet’s involvement. The owner pays the vet, files the claim, and is reimbursed by the insurance company, so long as the company covers the procedure.

Most pet health insurance plans let owners go to any licensed vet they choose, but there are a few programs that limit providers to veterinarians that are enrolled as a part of the company’s network.

Ms. Jasny wrote that it is worthwhile for some pet owners, to have the peace of mind and to know that, should an accident occur, he or she will not have to make the medical decision based on finances. If a pet is insured, the owner will be far less likely to ever lose their animal to what Ms. Jasny likes to call “economic euthanasia,” which is, essentially, sacrificing a pet because the expenditures are too large to afford.

Owning a pet is not inexpensive. In 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association, total U.S. pet industry expenditures came to $47.4 billion. Of that $47.7 billion, $18.28 billion is spend on food, $11.01 billion is spent on supplies and over-the-counter medicine, $12.79 billion is spent on veterinary care, $2.21 billion is spent on live animals purchases, and $3.45 billion is spent on pet services, such as grooming and boarding. According to “The Cost of Dog Ownership,” by veterinary technician Jenna Stregowski, the annual cost of a dog is estimated to be anywhere from $700 to $2,800, and up to $300 of that is spent on routine veterinary care.