Health Insurance Is Headed for the Dogs--and the Cats

Health insurance without an HMO? Surgery without pre-authorization? It does exist, but--sorry--it's for dogs and cats.

Perhaps you've seen brochures at your vet's office and wondered about insurance for Maggie the Maltese or Taffy the tabby. The California Veterinary Medical Assn. "strongly backs the concept," says Sacramento veterinarian Dr. Tom Kendall, a past association president.

Kendall adds, "The care we want for our beloved pets is just as high as we want for ourselves. Unfortunately, some of these things are quite costly" and pet owners have had to make life-or-death decisions based on money. "It's helped save a lot of lives."

Kendall was instrumental in the founding of the nation's oldest and largest insurer, Anaheim-based Veterinary Pet Insurance. It's owned by veterinarians and is the only one endorsed by both the American Humane Society and the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn.

"Lassie was the first recipient of a policy," in 1982, notes Richard Holden, association executive director.

"The premiums are not inexpensive," Holden says, but by planning ahead, a financially strapped pet owner can avoid making heart-rending decisions, such as, "Do I spend $800 on my dog, or do I have him put to sleep?"

There are other companies, among them Minnesota-based Premier Pet Insurance and Ohio-based PetsHealth Inc., offering similar coverage for dogs and cats--but none that insure turtles, cockatiels and the like.

In choosing an insurer, Kendall says, a pet owner should make sure it is licensed under the State Department of Insurance. Otherwise, "you can pay your $100 or $200 and if they go out of business, you have no recourse."

Most offer basic and premium plans.

"If you live in Los Angeles, vet fees are higher and you might want to consider paying a little more and getting a little more coverage," Kendall says. Most companies cover routine care, such as shots, but not preexisting conditions. And costs escalate as the pet ages.

For example, Veterinary Pet Insurance's gold plan averages $101 a year for puppies and kittens, and $146 for animals 5 to 8 years old. There's a $40 deductible, a $2,000 per-incident cap and a $7,500 annual cap. The Advantage Plus Plan--at $171 for puppies and kittens and $251 for animals 5 to 8 years old--has a $4,000 per-incident cap and a $12,000 annual cap.

How does this translate in terms of vet fees? Well, says Kendall, a broken leg requiring a plate could set back an uninsured pet owner $1,000.

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