Place a premium on pet insurance
Promoting the availability of health coverage can benefit the patient, client and practice.
Pet health insurance is a contract between the provider and the veterinary client, so why should a hospital owner make pet insurance a priority topic in the clinic? Simply put, when clients are insured, everyone wins. An insured client is often more willing to say “yes” to a treatment recommendation. Patients get needed care, and more treatment authorizations mean the practice’s bottom line benefits, too.
“The client having pet insurance only enhances us as a facility in the ability to care for the pet,” said Jo Osborne, executive director of Mohnacky Animal Hospitals of Escondido in Escondido, California. “People who have pet insurance say, ‘Don’t talk to me about money, I’ve got pet insurance.’”
Increasing the number of insured clients in a practice is in the best interests of patients, clients and the business. If you haven’t thought much about how pet insurance can benefit your practice, you’re not alone. But getting up to speed on pet insurance and how it can help patients and clients is worthwhile for any practice.
“Pet insurance helps take the stress off the staff of having those difficult conversations about finances and also has a direct correlation with increased revenue,” said Jackie Stalbaum, office manager at Vale Park Animal Hospital in Valparaiso, Indiana. “For example, if Fluffy is limping, clients with pet insurance are more likely to opt for X-rays that day versus waiting to see what happens. Insurance holders are also more likely to do more advanced treatments that would normally not be an option due to cost, such as chemotherapy, ACL rupture surgery and acupuncture.”
Stalbaum sees fixed-income clients who couldn’t pay for emergency surgery or advanced diagnostics if not for pet insurance.
“The increased diagnostics we are able to do when owners have insurance means the patients are getting diagnosed more quickly and accurately, and getting back to normal sooner,” she said. “This in turn makes clients happy, because everyone wants to see their pets healthy.”
Room for Growth
Despite the many benefits of insurance, few pet owners have it. The North American Pet Health Insurance Association reported in April that the number of insured pets in the United States and Canada surpassed 2 million for the first time. Given an estimated 185 million cats and dogs living in the United States, just 1 to 2 percent or pets are insured.
Explaining pet insurance to clients has its challenges.
“There’s confusion for pet owners that pet insurance works like insurance for humans in that it pays or that they have a small deductible to pay,” said Tracy Economidis, LVT, the hospital administrator at Animal Medical Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Clarifying that you have to pay your bill and submit your claim and then get reimbursed turns some people off.”
But times are changing as insurers streamline the process. Some providers offer mobile apps for uploading invoices. One of the newest developments is direct payment — clients pay the clinic only what they owe and the insurer quickly reimburses the hospital for the balance.
How to Promote Insurance
Pet owners often turn to the veterinary staff when they are unsure about whether to purchase pet insurance, and if so, from which company. If the answers the clients receive are unclear, many will abandon the idea.
“Make sure the staff has a good base knowledge of the main companies that are out there and the highlights of them so you can have an informed response to the clients,” Economidis said.
What might help is to appoint one or more staff members as “insurance experts” who can be trained to answer technical questions.
“When talking to clients about insurance, it’s important to choose your words wisely,” said Sequoya Serrano, office manager at Ark Animal Hospital in Chalfont, Pennsylvania. “The client is looking for the most affordable way to give the pet the best care. We never use words like ‘free’ or ‘completely covered.’ It is not up to us to make those assumptions. Once clients start talking to us about price, we refer them directly to the insurance company.”
Do Your Homework
Some clinics prefer to research and select one or two providers and recommend only them. Others just want a client to get insurance, no matter the company.
“Ultimately, the client is going to choose who they want, but it’s important that your hospital has basic knowledge of at least two companies,” Serrano said. “The client is going to ask for help, and they will not trust you if you do not know what you are talking about. I suggest one that has a wellness plan and another one that covers accident and illness.”
Staff members need to remember that not all insurance plans are the same. Some policies might exclude hereditary diseases in purebreds, for example, while others might reject claims involving cancer or hip dysplasia.
“We tell our clients that there are many companies out there, and they need to look at the one that will fit best for their needs, and we can provide the resources of checking them out,” Economidis said. “I think putting the decision in the client’s hands is easier on the staff.”
Getting Up to Speed
All insurance companies work to educate veterinary professionals about the value of coverage. Many will send a representative to train clinic staff about pet insurance and their plans. Some will spend time at the clinic speaking to your clients. What might be worthwhile is to invite a rep from two or more companies to speak to the staff so everyone is well-informed about the options.
“Many of our clients still do not know that pet insurance exists,” Stalbaum said. “We had one rep come to the hospital and talk to our clients about the benefits of pet insurance. She even came to our puppy class and spoke about how important it was to insure early to eliminate the concerns of pre-existing conditions.”
Her hospital took other steps, such as printing the rep’s name and telephone number at the bottom of every receipt, incorporating pet insurance articles in the monthly newsletter, and inviting the rep to the hospital’s booth at a local pet expo.
“I am developing a section in our employee manual that will help teach new hires to educate clients on insurance right from the start, getting them comfortable with scripts and preparing them for potential questions that clients may ask,” Stalbaum said. “I am also working on a contest for the team to reward the members who are promoting insurance.”
Mohnacky Animal Hospitals of Escondido has made a concerted effort to communicate the availability of pet insurance to clients. “It’s an everyday, every room, every client talk,” Osborne said.
Ark Animal Hospital has implemented a number of strategies to promote pet insurance in the clinic. Anytime a client calls to make an appointment for a new pet, the receptionist asks whether the pet is insured, just to alert the client to the fact that insurance exists and that the hospital thinks it’s important.
“The next person to mention insurance to the client will be the nurse,” Serrano said. “The doctor will mention it as well. We leave literature in the room for clients to read while they wait. Upon checkout, the reception team will ask if they have any questions. By the end of a client’s appointment, they should have heard about insurance at a minimum of three times.”
When the veterinary team values pet insurance, the client often can be persuaded.
“If your team doesn’t believe in it, neither will your client,” Stalbaum said. “The cost and advancement of medical treatment in the vet field is always on the rise. My mission is to help clients find ways to afford the veterinary care their pet needs … and pet insurance can help make that possible.”