Health plans with legs
By Kim Ode
Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Kim Ode
MINNEAPOLIS — Ray Klempka's family chose a bichon frise as their pet because the dogs are regarded as "a somewhat hardy breed," he said. Still, he decided to spring for a pet health insurance policy offered as part of the employee benefits package at Colle + McVoy, the Minnesota ad agency where he's an art director.
"My dog has since become the poster dog for pet health insurance," said Klempka. There was the large bag of M&Ms that Chevy ate one Christmas, an emergency that the policy covered. There was the back surgery, which was mostly covered. But there also was Chevy's $2,500 cataract surgery, which was necessitated by a genetic defect and so was not covered.
Yet Klempka says that Chevy's health insurance, which costs him less than $20 a month, buys him peace of mind for a member of the family.
Health insurance policies for pets are still rare, but the numbers are growing as all creatures great (but mostly small) join what Brian Iannessa calls "the movement of pets from the back yard to the bedroom." Iannessa is a spokesman for the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPI), which has about 80 percent of the market for pet insurance, or about 370,000 policies in effect, from parakeets to pot-bellied pigs.
That's still less than 3 percent of the U.S. pet population. But a poll last year found that nearly 90 percent of pet owners reported taking sick days from work to care for their pets, so the trend may have legs.
Critics charge that insurance policies are just another way to wring money from U.S. pet owners, who already spend billions on their companions each year. Klempka is skeptical. If there's a drawback to pet insurance, he said, it's that it's more like car insurance than human health insurance. Policies may be reviewed for claims that are too frequent or too costly, so he doesn't always file for everything that he could. VPI's base plan has an annual benefit maximum of $14,000. (See www.petinsurance.com)
Iannessa doesn't dispute the auto analogy. "Pet insurance is a risk-management tool to defray the cost of vet care if the unexpected happens," he said. "If you're looking to see dollars back every year, there are no guarantees you're going to use that policy, just like auto insurance."
Pet insurance was an innovation of vets who wanted to help pet owners avoid "economic euthansia," or putting their pets to sleep because they couldn't afford treatment. Plans range from wellness plans that cover the routine care of physical exams, vaccines and dental work to riders that cover cancer treatments. As with humans, pets can be excluded for pre-existing conditions. There are no HMOs, per se; a veterinarian need only be licensed. You pay upfront, then receive a claim form to submit for reimbursement.
An estimated 1,300 companies, including Chipotle, Viacom and Ford Motor Co., offer pet insurance to their employees. Sue Hagstrom, human resources manager at Colle + McVoy, said they've offered it for several years with anywhere from a dozen to 25 employees enrolled at any one time.
Banfield Pet Hospitals, with 15 locations in Minnesota, offer an alternative to pet insurance with a wellness plan that stresses preventive care such as vaccinations, dental hygiene and nutrition through prepaid packages. (See www.banfield.net.)
For Klempka, getting a dog fulfilled childhood dreams, but he tries to be realistic about pet ownership. When Chevy damaged a disc in his spine and required major surgery to stave off paralysis, the family talked with their vet about practical issues.
"Chevy had just turned 7 and bichons' life expectancy is 14 or 15 years, so you do start weighing if you want to do something to help him, considering the cost involved," Klempka said. "Our vet said the surgery had a high success rate, so that was the reason we went through with it."
His VPI policy covered about $1,800 of the $2,500 operation. Big money? Sure. But then, he's a dog owner. "When you don't have a dog, you might well say, 'Where's the logic in that? Who would drop thousands of dollars on a dog?' " Klempka said. "But when you saw her dragging her behind across the floor, there was no doubt we would."