Staking a Claim: Veterinarians Talk About Pet Insurance

Pet insurance has grown significantly since the industry emerged in the 1980s. The number of insurers has increased, as has the diversity of policies. While some hesitancy still remains within the veterinary community, attitudes have for the most part shifted in favor of pet insurance and some practitioners fully embrace it.

by Paula Fitzsimmons

PET INSURANCE HAS GROWN SIGNIFICANTLY since emerging in the 1980s. The number of insurers has increased, as has the diversity of policies. While attitudes within the veterinary community have shifted in favor of pet insurance—some practitioners fully embrace it—hesitancy still remains.

How Pet Insurance Works Today

Pet insurance is an indemnity model, an agreement between the insurance company and pet owner. It usually works like this: The client pays the veterinarian upfront, submits a claim directly to the insurance company, then waits for reimbursement. Veterinary practices are typically not involved in this process, although some will submit claims for their clients as a professional courtesy.

It’s unlike human insurance, “where the health insurance company is part of the decisionmaking process, having to preapprove or dictate medications and certain diagnostics,” explained Donna Raditic, DVM, DACVN, CVA, a nutritional consultant and educator with Nutrition and Integrative Medicine Consultants based in Athens, Georgia. Instead, medical discretion is left up to veterinarians. “They don’t tell your veterinary team what they can or cannot do. The decisions about what needs to be done, and what is best care and management, is between you and your veterinary team.”

Insurance programs have proliferated and become more diverse, said Thomas Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, LFACHE, chief executive officer of Veterinary Consulting International in Lakewood, Colorado. For example, “there is the type of policy that has a deductible that the pet owner has to pay before insurance kicks in. There is the catastrophe-only policy, which is lucrative for the insurance company since catastrophic events are not common anymore. There are those insurance companies that require medical record submission. And there are a few that include preventive care as well as catastrophic coverage.”

Attitudes on Pet Insurance Are Shifting

A 2016 North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA) report shows that when veterinarians were asked, “Which of the following best describes your opinion of pet health insurance?” in a survey, 56% of the 505 respondents said they wished all of their clients had it.

“I have been a pet insurance advocate [since] Jack Stephens had the only game in town. In the beginning, I was unpopular with most other consultants because they thought insurance companies would set prices. Now, more than 25 years later, most consultants seek insurance company sponsorship.”
—THOMAS CATANZARO, DVM, MHA, LFACHE

“I think there [is] a percentage of veterinarians who are not fans of pet insurance, and probably never will be fans of pet insurance,” said Karen E. Felsted, DVM, MS, CPA, CVPM, CVA, founder and president of Dallas-based PantheraT Veterinary Management Consulting. “Having said that, I think there is a greater number of veterinarians who are comfortable with the concept. And I would go as far as to say that many embrace the concept because they recognize that veterinary medicine is not inexpensive.”

The veterinary community has not always been receptive to pet insurance, however. “I have been a pet insurance advocate [since] Jack Stephens [who is credited with starting the North American pet insurance industry] had the only game in town,” Catanzaro said. “In the beginning, I was unpopular with most other consultants because they thought insurance companies would set prices. Now, more than 25 years later, most consultants seek insurance company sponsorship.”

When Raditic, who also cofounded the Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute, worked in general practice, she didn’t recommend pet insurance because of the industry’s newness. “Companies came and went. There was no stability for a period of time.” Her attitude has since shifted. “I do believe pet insurance is a great idea, and veterinarians need to have these discussions with clients to help them know they are available.”

It’s not just individual practices that have shifted their thoughts on pet insurance. In August of last year, the AVMA amended its position on pet insurance from endorsing the concept of insurance to encouraging veterinarians to speak with their clients about it.

Some of this attitude shift is shared by clients. Although only 1–2% of North American pets are currently covered under pet insurance, NAPHIA says the industry has been growing steadily since 2013; and from 2017 to 2018 alone, it experienced a 17% growth rate.

“I find that more and more clients are aware of pet insurance, and a higher percentage of our clients are purchasing it,” said Nancy T. Peterson, DVM, CCRT, CVA, CVSMT, owner of AAHA-accredited Ingersoll Animal Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. She says it was once more common for clients to purchase insurance when their pets had prolonged health issues. “Now I am seeing more clients purchase it without that previous pet history.”

Why Veterinarians Advocate for Pet Insurance

“I have seen firsthand how medical insurance for pets can impact medical quality standards and improve quality of life for patients,” said Nicholas R. Nelson, DVM, MBA, chief operating officer at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital (hospitals in BluePearl’s nationwide network vary in AAHA accreditation).

Pet insurance provides clients with more options. “This freedom to extend care allows veterinarians to perform essential tests, which leads to a quicker diagnosis and better prognosis for the pet. Identifying a disease and applying medical intervention early in the development stage oftentimes is lifesaving for the pet,” added Nelson.

Bond Vet, with clinics spread throughout the New York City area, has had similar experiences. “Pet insurance has allowed us to perform more in-depth diagnostic examinations and procedures if and when necessary, as well as surgeries that may not have been able to be performed due to financial constraints,” said Stephanie Austin, DVM, BVMS, BAppSc, BVetBiol, Bond Vet’s medical director.

Out-of-pocket expenses can be difficult for pet owners to cover, particularly if an animal unexpectedly becomes ill or injured, says Felsted. “And all of a sudden you’re talking about multiple thousands of dollars’ worth of care.”

There is also evidence that pet owners seek out veterinary care more often when they have insurance. NAPHIA has found that cat owners spend 81% more per year on veterinary services, and dog owners spend 29% more.

“Pet insurance has allowed us to perform more in-depth diagnostic examinations and procedures if and when necessary, as well as surgeries that may not have been able to be performed due to financial constraints.”
—STEPHANIE AUSTIN, DVM, BVMS, BAPPSC BVETBIOL

Clients and their pets are not the only ones who can benefit from having increased care options. Pet insurance can reduce the risk for compassion fatigue among veterinarians, says Nelson. “Veterinarians deal with death and illness every day. They witness the results of animal cruelty, are the messengers of bad news, and witness clients struggle to weigh financial need against the needs of their pet. Pet insurance helps to remove some of the ethical dilemmas veterinarians face daily.”

Performing euthanasia can be especially difficult on practitioners. “To protect the human-animal bond is to protect the client from resorting to economic euthanasia, and medical insurance for pets can aid in that objective. Coverage gives clients the freedom to make medical decisions based on quality of life, rather than finances, while also allowing the veterinarian to complete treatment plans, lessening the subsequent risk of compassion fatigue, which, in part, comes due to constant exposure to euthanasia,” said Nelson.

Where Does the Hesitancy Come From?

Despite changing attitudes about pet insurance, not all veterinarians have embraced it. In the same NAPHIA survey where 56% of respondents said they wished all of their clients had health insurance, 41% responded that it made no difference either way, while 3% wish none of their clients had it.

Several factors contribute to this reluctance.

Complexity of the Pet Insurance Industry

Pet insurance can be hard to understand, admits Felsted. “Especially now that there’s a wide variety of insurance companies and a wide variety of plans out there. Even for the practices that are comfortable talking about insurance, it can be hard to get started.”

“I find that more and more clients are aware of pet insurance, and a higher percentage of our clients are purchasing it.”
—NANCY T. PETERSON, DVM, CCRT, CVA, CVSMT

There are things practices can do to make this process easier, she adds. “Any of the insurance companies would be happy to come out and spend some time to talk not just about their products but about insurance, how it works, and what pet owners should think about when choosing a policy.”

Not Wanting to Be Perceived as Salespeople

There was a time when veterinarians felt pressure to act as salespeople, says Felsted. “And they didn’t feel comfortable with that.”

Many veterinarians, including Peterson, share this sentiment. “I feel that it is our job to make clients aware that there is pet insurance available and why it is recommended. I do not feel that it is our job to sell it.”

Loss of Control

Michele Drake, DVM, CVA, chief executive officer of AAHA-accredited Drake Center for Veterinary Care in Encinitas, California, says that while her practice recommends pet insurance, especially for puppies and breeds like bulldogs and mastiffs, they’re still cautious.

“We don’t have one particular company we work with because I feel it’s really a bad business decision to align yourself with any one company, because they may tell you one thing and then two months later somebody buys them. I’ve been in the industry a long time and we’ve seen it happen. If you do recommend a particular company, your clients assume that that’s someone you want to do business with, and if things don’t go well, it reflects badly on your practice, and you have no control over how they’re doing business,” said Drake.

Other Possible Drawbacks

Certain veterinary services are not covered, depending on the insurance company and policy a client is subscribed to. It’s a factor that can prevent veterinarians and clients from utilizing pet insurance to its fullest.

One of these is pre-existing conditions. “In offering behavior consultations, my practice is unique in that most of my patients have pre-existing conditions, which are therefore excluded from coverage by insurance companies. I know of several clients who use insurance to cover our behavior appointments. If the client obtains insurance before the behavior problem is excluded from coverage as a pre-existing condition, it does help tremendously to take the financial component out of getting the treatment the pet needs to remain in the home,” Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB, owner of Veterinary Behavior Specialists in Dublin, California.

This is why Raditic reminds her clients with healthy puppies or kittens to ask their primary practitioners about pet insurance. “It works best when purchased early on when the youngster has no pre-existing conditions.”

Although Raditic recommends pet insurance to clients, her own services—nutritional consultations—are not always covered. “Which is really a shame because diet is such a big part of almost every chronic disease state. I think this really needs to change. As a specialist, that becomes an integral part of managing patients about optimal nutrition and supplements for chronic disease states.”

While some veterinarians have not yet embraced pet insurance and others remain cautious, most have a positive image of it. Even with the barriers, they see it as a way to improve patient care and reduce compassion fatigue within the veterinary community.

Tips and Talking Points

Make discussing pet insurance with clients feel more like an educational opportunity than a sales pitch.

Keep it simple. “We include discussions about pet insurance during every puppy and kitten visit, as well as new pets to our practice,” said Robin Downing, DVM, MS, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP, hospital director of AAHA-accredited Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado.

“And then we ask during subsequent visits, ‘Do you have an insurance claim form for us to fill out?’ This is a gentle way to remind them that we think insurance is a value-added, and that they should have another look at it.”

Focus on just a few insurance companies. Catanzaro asks his practice clients to pick their favorite two companies, then provide their brochures to all new clients. “This way, they are not selling pet insurance, which is illegal in most states.”

Downing says her practice provides information on three pet insurance companies to their clients. “We do not advocate for one specific company, and we feel that the three we ask them to consider are reputable companies (one is recommended by AAHA). We encourage them to go to the individual websites and do some comparisons,” said Downing, who offers pet insurance as an employment benefit.

Designate staff members as insurance experts. Felsted says that while everyone in the practice should have a little bit of knowledge about pet insurance, having a few designated experts can be helpful.

 

Paula Fitzsimmons is a journalist and content marketing writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes about companion animals as they intersect with topics related to health, nutrition, technology, and finance. She has a strong interest in crafting content that will inspire and help pet owners make informed decisions. Aside from Trends magazine, her work has appeared in places like PetMD, Happy Paws magazine, Great Pet Care, Prevention magazine, PetCoach, and many others.

 

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/thodonal, ©iStock.com/fizkes, ©iStock.com/Morsa Images

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