I am excited to bring you one of America’s most treasured veterinarians, Dr. Nancy Kay, author of the super popular and uber helpful book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. Today she’ll be discussing pet health insurance. It’s something I know I’d like to learn more about, and I figure if I do, other people might, too.
The World of Pet Health Insurance
By Nancy Kay, DVM
Veterinary health insurance has been around for a good long time, but only recently is it achieving greater popularity with consumers. In the past its growth seemed to be stymied by inadequate, slowpay, no-pay reimbursement policies. This seems to be changing now that some insurance providers are willing to provide greater reimbursement amounts to policyholders.
Perhaps youve thought about health insurance for your dog, but havent committed one way or the other because the policies are too confusing or you dont know whether or not it makes good financial sense. Here is some advice to help answer your pet insurance questions.
Although it is considered to be far less necessary than human medical insurance, should your dog suffer some sort of catastrophesuch as being hit by a carpet insurance might be your best, if not your only, way of financing his recovery. Without question, quality veterinary care is expensive, and as the cost of living increases, so, too, will the cost of doing business with your vet. Currently, the surgical repair of a torn cruciate ligamenta common knee injury in large breeds of dogcosts $2,000 to $4,000. The average fee for an MRI scan is $1,500 to $2,500. Treating diabetes can cost several thousand dollars over the span of a dogs lifetime.
Remember, when it comes to pet insurance, third party payments are the exception rather than the rule. This means that the veterinarian receives
payment directly from you, the client, and not from the insurance company. You are still responsible for paying your veterinary bills. The insurance company then reimburses you as per the terms of your policy.
Answers to the following questions will help guide your decision about whether or not health insurance for your dog makes good sense:
1. What are your financial resources?
A new puppy means multiple examinations, vaccinations, deworming, heartworm preventative, and spay or neuter surgeryexpenses that will need to become part of the household budget. If an emergency illness or accidentoccurred, could you pay what was needed for his recovery? Think about the types of expenses you might encounter, such as surgery, an ultrasound evaluation, hospitalization with or without intensive care, and specialist consultations. Could you absorb such costs should the need arise tomorrow? How do these numbers compare to the amount needed to purchase a years worth of medical insurance for your dog (on average, $300 to $500 annually depending on the insurance provider and the type of coverage you select)? Your six-month-old Golden Retriever may be the picture of health, but how about several years down the road when hes become a Golden Oldie? Perhaps purchasing and maintaining pet insurance when your dog is young makes sense. This way, you can rest assured there will be no exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and you may have the option of locking in a lower premium rate.
2. Are you inclined to take the do-everything-possible approach when it comes to treating your dog?
The price tag for aggressive veterinary care is considerably higher than for a more conservative approach. If you answered this question affirmatively, insurance might be well worth the investment.
3. What best suits your peace of mind?
Will you sleep better at night knowing that, no matter what happens, health insurance for your dog will allow you to pay for excellent, top-of-the-line care? Or, will you lie awake fearing that you are just throwing money away with yet another insurance policy that might never be needed?
If youve decided that pet health insurance makes sense, be prepared to dedicate some serious time to comparing providers. Currently, there are more than a dozen pet insurance companies competing for your premium dollars. Begin by soliciting advice from your veterinary clinic staff. Guaranteed, they will have heard from clients who are pleased or dissatisfied with their insurance company dealings! Ask your dog loving friends and relatives to share their experiences. Next, research how the companies you are considering handle medical claims relating to the following issues:
Preexisting conditions: A pre-existing condition refers to any health problem your dog developed prior to the date you purchased his health insurance policy. Some providers permanently blacklist such conditions. Others will provide coverage once the problem has been resolved, or after a clearly defined disease-free time interval. Be aware that when you file a claim, insurance companies typically subpoena all prior medical records with the intent of identifying preexisting conditions. How they interpret these records is anybodys guess. Hassles over pre-existing conditions make a strong case for insuring your pup when hes fresh out of the womb, before hes had a chance to have anything go wrong.
Inherited diseases: An insurance provider should be able to provide you with an official list of breed-specific exclusions. If you encounter reluctance to provide such a list, its probably best to move on to a different company.
Repeat offenders: How does the insurance company handle the dog who manages to get into the same medical mess over and over again, for example the dog who eats socks and repeatedly requires surgery to clear the intestinal obstruction? Some providers have a yearly cap (maximum amount paid out) for each disease or situation, and every year the dog starts with a clean slate. Other companies enforce a lifetime cap- reimbursement for a specific malady might be permanently cut off long before your dog becomes a senior citizen.
Anticipated conditions: If you are planning to breed your female dog, consider expenses associated with pre-breeding screening for inherited disease, ovulation timing, pregnancy, and whelping (delivering her pups). Big dogs are more prone to hip dysplasia (arthritis) and gastric torsion (twisting of the stomach, requiring immediate surgical intervention). Smaller breeds are notorious for developing heart valve issues and periodontal disease. When screening insurance providers, ask what their reimbursement policies are for such anticipated conditions.
Claims processing: Ask what the average lag time is between filing a claim (money youve already paid the veterinary hospital) and receipt of the reimbursement check. Determine how claim disputes are handled. Keep in mind your veterinarian will not want to get involved in insurance company disputes. Every vet knows plenty of medical docs who have jumped ship because of having to deal with insurance providers. Veterinarians are trying to stay off that road to professional burnout!
The answers to many your questions can be gleaned from the insurance companys web site. Some questions, however, will require direct conversation with a customer service representative (what a great opportunity to find out how long it takes for a live human to take your call). A comprehensive list of screening questions can be found in Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life or at www.speakingforspot.com. In addition to running through the list of questions, ask the insurance company representative to walk you through a couple of hypothetical claims. Their answers should be readily forthcoming and provided with confidence. If, instead, you encounter hemming and hawing, and answers do not include specific dollar amounts, its time to move on to the next company on your list.
A little more about Dr. Kay, from her website:
Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of CaliforniaDavis Veterinary School.
Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
She is a staff internist at VCA Animal Care Center, a 24-hour emergency/specialty care center in Rohnert Park, California. As a way of providing emotional support for people with sick four-legged family members, Dr. Kay founded and helps facilitate the VCA Animal Care Center Client Support Group. She also facilitates client communication rounds for VCA Animal Care Center employees.
Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hills Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. The Dog Writers Association of America selected Dr. Kay for two awards. The first was the 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award recognizing Speaking for Spot as the publication that best promotes the health and well being of dogs. The second award was for the Best Blog of 2009
This article was recently featured in DogSport Magazine. It is reprinted with permission from Dr. Kay.