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Cat Copays & Doggie Deductibles

Pet health insurance helps guardians cut costs on vet visits

By Keith Ecker

When Karen Harper adopted sibling Maine Coon kittens Nikita and Zachary five years ago, she immediately purchased pet health insurance. That coverage came in handy last year when Nikita fell ill. Harper took her to the veterinarian, who suggested a blood test.

“The insurance definitely helped,” says Harper, who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I don’t want to say I would have delayed having the blood work done, but I would have had to borrow some money.”

In the end, Harper’s insurance covered a majority of the medical costs, and Zachary once again had a healthy sister with whom he could play.

Harper is one of thousands of people living with pets across the country who have decided to pay a premium to insure their pet’s health. In fact, the pet health-insurance industry is booming. Over the past eight years, there’s been a 25 percent annual increase in policyholders, according to the Hartville Group, a pet reinsurance company.

All insurers provide coverage for both dogs and cats, and some even cover birds, reptiles, and rodents. Premiums tend to increase as the pet gets older, and some plans restrict older pets from enrollment altogether. Also, insurers typically do not provide coverage for hereditary conditions, such as hip dysplasia. However, some companies increase the price of premiums for breeds that are prone to certain genetic illnesses, rather than excluding such conditions.

Like human insurance, plans do not cover pre-existing conditions. That means if your cat is diagnosed with Feline Leukemia prior to being insured, all expenses related to the illness will have to come out of your own pocketbook. “That’s why it’s an excellent idea to insure your pets as puppies and kittens before these conditions become potential problems,” says Kent Kruse, director of provider development for Veterinary

Pet Insurance, a pet insurance provider. This is one reason why adopting from a shelter is an advantage. Many shelters now offer trial insurance plans for newly adopted pets, providing animals with coverage before such conditions have a chance to arise.

The benefits of coverage

Part of the reason for this surge is the increase in veterinary costs. By paying a monthly premium, which can range between $10 and $75, pet guardians can reap huge savings. “The cost of doing business has gone up because of the quality of medical care that we are able to offer our patients,” says Dr. Sheldon Rubin, a veterinarian at Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. “Insurance has reduced the number of clients who have to unfortunately make the decision to end the life of their pets because they can’t afford a procedure.”

Pet insurance is also catching on because of its convenience. Not only can people take their pets to any licensed practitioner, but getting reimbursed is as easy as mailing a letter. The person pays out of pocket and then sends a claim form and diagnosis to the insurance company, which then reviews the claim and sends a check.

The major players

Not every pet insurance plan is created equal. Each provider has its own rules, restrictions, and features. The largest player is Veterinary Pet Insurance or VPI (www.PetInsurance.com), which boasts nearly 400,000 customers. The 25-year-old company provides coverage for pets of all ages, though premiums increase for older animals. Like all providers, VPI does not cover pre-existing medical conditions. Unlike some providers, however, VPI does not factor breed into coverage costs, but does restrict coverage for certain hereditary conditions.

Under VPI’s Standard Plan, for example, puppy premiums cost $45 per month on average while kittens are $35. There is a $50 per-incident deductible. Once met, VPI will reimburse up to 90 percent of each procedure’s payout, which are listed on the company’s website. There are also caps limiting reimbursement at $2,500 per incident and $9,000 annually.

“We offer a couple add-ons that increase the premium, such as our cancer rider, which doubles the available benefits for cancer treatment,” says Kent Kruse. “For an extra $99 a year, we have a vaccination and routine care rider, which covers things such as office visits and vaccinations.”

The second-largest insurer is Pet Care Insurance, also known as Shelter Care Insurance (www.ShelterCare.com). It has the largest variety of plans of any pet insurer, making it more flexible than its competitors. However, this can make choosing coverage confusing because each plan has its own unique restrictions and benefits. In all, there
are six different plans, none of which cover basic wellness costs.

Shelter Care’s basic plan, known as QuickCare, starts at about $120 a year. There is a $50 per-incident deductible, after which the plan reimburses 100 percent of out-of-pocket expenses up to $2,000. There are no annual limits; however, QuickCare doesn’t cover illnesses and only reimburses certain accidents, including car accidents and bone fractures.

The newest contender to hit the market is the ASPCA (www.ASPCAPetInsurance.com). In October 2006, the association began offering four different pet health-insurance plans. Minimum premium prices for dogs range from about $10 to $55 per month. Age, breed, and geographic location all factor into the cost of care.

The ASPCA’s Primary Plan which covers accidents, injuries, hospitalization, X-rays, surgery, and illness has a yearly $100 deductible. Once met, the plan reimburses up to 80 percent of costs. Caps are set at $1,500 per incident and $8,000 annually.

“We have everything from basic wellness for cats and dogs all the way through catastrophic injury,” says Jo Sullivan, senior vice president of development and communications for the ASPCA. “Depending on the age and breed of the pet, you put together a plan that is right for you and your baby.”

With so many different providers and plans to choose from, finding the right coverage can make a pet parent’s head spin. To make the decision easier, consumers should choose a plan that meets their budgets and their pets’ needs. “When looking at health insurance for your pet, check to see how flexible the plans are,” Sullivan says. “You don’t want to end up with an insurance plan that doesn’t allow you to treat the things you may need to treat.”

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