Better Business by Robb Hicken: Pet insurance can help when your pet is sick or injured

ROBB HICKEN, chief storyteller for the Better Business Bureau serving the Snake River RegionJuly 30, 2013 

Robb Hicken

When faced with an emergency injury or unexpected illness with your pet, insurance can be an invaluable resource.

Anything from getting hit by a car to getting a urinary tract infection may be covered according to the various plans offered by the pet-insurance providers.

“However, only approximately 1 percent of the pet population is covered,” says Ann Selander, administrator for WestVet Emergency & Specialty Center in Garden City. “I think it stands to reason that pet insurance is lower on the list of priorities given the recent economic situation we are all working through. It is hard to promote it to folks that can’t afford their own health insurance, let alone that for their pet.”

Selander helps educate clients who come into the hospital about the differences between insurance and pet wellness plans, and about different insurers in the market.

“Often, what you pay in premiums is essentially equivalent to paying outright for the care at the time of service,” she says. “That being said, there are many choices available.”

The pet-insurance industry grew tenfold in 15 years, expanding from a single pet insurance company in the early 1980s to 11 companies to date. Dog owners spent an average of $785 on vet bills last year, while cat owners spent $516, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Pet insurance agencies offer plans from $15 to $75 a month to help budget for pet-health emergencies, according to USA Today.

In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $50.8 billion on their pets, and more than a quarter of those expenses — $14.1 billion — came in the form of vet bills, according to the association. Pet-insurance policy sales increased between 8 percent and 10 percent annually at different companies, the North American Pet Association reports. Boise’s Pets Best Insurance, for instance, has had 20 percent yearly sales increases since it started in 2005.

Dr. Jack Stephens, founder of Pets Best Insurance, says transparency in the industry has always been essential. A visionary in pet insurance, Stephens founded Veterinary Pet Insurance in California before moving to Idaho and starting Pets Best.

As a practicing veterinarian, he witnessed the tough decision forced on people with four-legged “family” members based on money, and it didn’t seem right. That insight led to his move from a pet health care practice to insurance. It made him transparent in his dealings as a veterinarian and later in establishing the insurance company.

“Part of the success has been that I’ve always made myself very accessible,” he says. “I only had one phone and one email address. And anyone could contact me personally if they had issues.”

Stephens says the staff is taught the same philosophy. They all know they can come to him if they can’t solve an issue.

“They have been given the power and the right tools, and that makes the difference,” he says.

Pets Best spokesman Chris Middleton says the company is consistent in its message of an open-door policy.

“Making clients aware of pet health insurance can be a smart business decision — one that may help to allow you to practice better medicine and help to lead to healthier pets and happier pet owners, who have up to five times the spending power of noninsured clients,” he says. “Many pet owners don’t even realize that pet insurance is available and affordable, so they will appreciate learning about its benefits.”

Pet insurance plans generally cover treatment for animal illnesses or injuries. These plans require monthly premiums and cover a large portion of the cost of diagnosis and treatment for emergency situations. There may be exclusions as well as caps on your claims.

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