How to Evaluate the Value of Pet Insurance
Vetting carriers and recommending one or more to a client can enhance pet owner loyalty.
Client loyalty is every veterinary practice’s most valuable intangible asset. While many factors create loyalty, client communication is probably the most important. In 2019, the American Veterinary Medical Association encouraged veterinary teams to communicate the availability of pet health insurance to clients and explain to them how insurance can improve the health, quality of life and life expectancy of their pets. Such statements are powerful examples of specific communication that can strengthen loyalty.
The most frequent response after a clinic team member introduces a client to pet insurance is, “Which company do you recommend?” Veterinarians might hesitate to respond specifically, preferring instead that clients do the research. However, veterinary practices that conduct a thorough study and favor at least one insurance carrier report improved client loyalty as well as stronger staff loyalty as the pet owner’s affordability concerns ebb. Here is how to select pet health insurers.
The Vetting Process
Veterinarians should weigh numerous factors when validating their recommendations. Fortunately, pet insurance carriers make the process easier by structuring their policies similar to automobile collision insurance, a familiar and easily understandable type of coverage. All pet insurers require the purchaser to share in the risk through coinsurance and a deductible. The purchasers can adjust these shared risk variables to create the premium most suitable for their budgets.
Several insurance policy criteria are valuable in determining which company a practice recommends to a client. The easiest variable to evaluate and probably the one uppermost in most pet owners’ minds is the premium cost.
Insurers set premiums based on a pet’s age, breed and home ZIP code. As with people, the incidence of medical problems increases with age, so the likelihood of medical costs rises, too, logically making an older pet’s premium more expensive. Also, certain breeds have a higher incidence of hereditary issues, which translates into a higher medical cost risk and costlier premiums. Lastly, the ZIP code reflects the difference in the cost of veterinary care in different parts of the country. Veterinary medical fees tend to be higher in Southern California, for example, than in central Wisconsin.
A veterinarian might assume that if the deductible, coinsurance and policy maximums are the same, all pet insurance carriers’ premiums are nearly identical. But like veterinary fees varying from one hospital to another, insurance premiums vary, too. Therefore, the easiest and probably first comparative factor to investigate is the premium charged by each company for the same level of coverage and benefits. Or, in short, the value received for the premium dollar spent.
Pet insurance company websites are the best sources of accurate premium cost information.
A Case Study
The table shown below was generated for ZIP code 54235, which covers Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. All the unidentified insurance companies represented in this recent real-life survey have proven longevity. The customer-defined coverage criteria were:
- Unlimited annual benefit
- $250 deductible
- 10% coinsurance
The results illustrate the value of every premium dollar spent and provide insight into the variance as a pet ages.
Lastly, understand two critical rules regarding ZIP codes and premiums:
- A carrier that appears to provide the best value in one ZIP code might not offer the same relative value somewhere else.
- Premiums change constantly. A company that appears to offer the best value on the date a survey is completed might not rank the same six months later.
I recommend that veterinarians conduct a survey at least every six months to ensure the continued validity of their insurance carrier recommendations.
Because each veterinary practice is distinctive in the diagnostics and treatments routinely offered to clients, additional insurance policy features should be assessed. The coverage of patient rehabilitation, as an example, could be important to practices providing extensive orthopedic services. Practices offering alternative therapies might deem those insurance benefits as critical. Clinics performing comprehensive dental services will want to recommend a carrier offering broad dental coverage.
Accordingly, the following policy benefits are vital when a veterinarian assesses value:
- Will the insurer pay the practice directly if a client cannot afford a large out-of-pocket bill? This service allows the pet owner to pay only the deductible and coinsurance at the time of invoicing.
- Are exam fees covered? If not, the burden of paying them out of pocket is equal to an additional copay.
- Is the deductible defined as per incident (accident or illness) or per policy year? With the former, the deductible for a specific incident is charged once over the pet’s lifetime. However, unrelated incidents will each be charged a separate deductible even if they occur within the same policy period.
- How long after enrollment will the policyholder be required to wait before an accident or illness qualifies for a benefit?
- What is the level of dental coverage? About half of the companies cover dental accidents but not dental illnesses such as periodontal disease and feline tooth resorption.
- Are therapeutic diets covered? Practices that routinely prescribe special diets will want to ensure the food is covered in an insurer’s base policy and not in a wellness add-on.
- Are behavioral issues, hereditary illnesses and rehabilitation therapy eligible for benefits?
- Are benefits provided for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage or cold laser?
- Will the company reimburse veterinarians who diagnose and treat an insured personal pet? About half of the companies don’t allow it and require another veterinarian, such as an associate, to be involved.
- Can the company preapprove claims if an estimate is provided?
- Does the company offer discounts for team members’ pets?
Does the company offer a free, 30-day trial period? This feature might not be available in every state.
Here are a few last pieces of advice:
- For comparison purposes, always evaluate pet health insurance policies that provide the best level of coverage (deductible, coinsurance and maximum annual benefits). Your clients can always select the level of coverage appropriate for their budgets and needs.
- Study each carrier’s policy carefully. Do not let an aversion to small print diminish the thoroughness of the process.
- Avoid the vetting of wellness benefits. The purpose of insurance is to guard against an unexpected accident or illness. Wellness services are predictable, and their inclusion as a benefit distorts the premium/value factor.
- Online reviews are of questionable value in recommending an insurance carrier. Negative reviews rarely include both sides of a dispute. Positive reviews not submitted by certified policyholders could be exaggerated or invalid.
- Insurance carrier representatives and websites can be sources of comparative information. The accuracy of the information supplied by either source must be verified.
- Stay current. The pet insurance industry and the coverages offered by individual carriers change constantly. Increases in the cost of veterinary care result in higher premiums and adjusted benefits. Staying informed will ensure that your recommendations produce positive results, building and strengthening client loyalty.
Dr. Kent Kruse is a former practicing veterinarian and a pioneer in developing computerized veterinary office management systems. He later joined the executive staff at Veterinary Pet Insurance as the chief operating officer and then PurinaCare Pet Health Insurance as vice president of professional relations. Now retired, he continues to educate veterinarians about the importance of pet health insurance.
Aggregator websites such as petinsuranceinfo.com, petinsurancereview.com and petinsuranceshopper.com comb insurance provider websites, saving a visitor time and effort. Be aware that such websites might not compare every carrier, so excluded companies need to be checked directly. By regulation, the operators of aggregator websites are licensed insurance agents. If a pet owner enrolls through one, the aggregator earns a commission, which might be reflected in a slight difference in the premium cost obtained from a carrier’s website.
WHO’S WHO IN PET INSURANCE
Learn about the companies competing in the U.S. pet health insurance market and what they have to offer policyholders. Click here to download the free PDF.