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Feature August 2013 Issue

Pet Insurance: Useful?

An unexpected or chronic illness can take a toll on your pet care budget. Thatís where insurance can help.

Paying a relatively low monthly insurance premium can help you leave cost out of the equation when your cat is facing a life-threatening illness that might be prohibitively expensive to treat out-of-pocket.

“I can’t quite remember all the details,” Harry Winter says, “but Simone was suddenly getting sicker and sicker, and my wife and I dreaded taking her to the veterinarian because we knew we didn’t have the money to treat her.”

“Finally, we did take her,” says Lydia Winter, Harry’s wife. “She was so sick she had to stay in the hospital for intravenous fluids while they figured out what was wrong. It turned out she had a urinary blockage due to crystals in her urine.”

The veterinarians on staff did manage to dissolve the crystals, but by that point Simone had become so weak she was not bouncing back. “She refused to eat,” Mrs. Winter says. “She refused even to drink water.” To pay the bill — which by that point had climbed into the thousands — the Winters had to cash in bonds that Harry’s parents had been putting aside for him since he was born.

Newlyweds, the couple had been presented with the bonds when they married. Simone was the manifestation of their nesting instinct — the pet that many young couples adopt in trying on parenting for size, and they had fallen head over heels for her in the short time they had her. Upon paying the bill, the Winters took Simone home to die.

Cats usually mask illness

Having to weigh financial concerns against a pet’s health, and even her life, is an all-too-common scenario. Cats by nature tend to be secretive, even about their health, and often don’t show that they’re sick until the situation is very dire. Dogs, by contrast, do not mask their illnesses so well. Whatever is wrong can often be tended to before it gets too out of hand — and too expensive.

What it comes down to is that the chances are high that at some point you’re going to be faced with an illness that’s going to send shock waves through your budget. Most cats do not stay perfectly healthy into old age and die one night in their sleep. Most people don’t, either, but there’s one difference. Many people have health insurance. To avoid having to make an awful, unwanted decision for your cat, it’s time for you to consider buying health insurance for her as well.

Opting for an insurance plan

Before we get into the nitty gritty of choosing to pay a monthly health insurance premium, we want to stress that whether you have pet health insurance or not, you should never feel guilty if you decide to euthanize your pet because of financial limitations. “People go on a financial roller coaster out of a guilty, misguided belief that it’s the only ethical choice,” says John Berg, DVM, editor-in-chief of Catnip. But the vast majority of pet owners have finite resources. As long as you love your cat till the moment you decide to put her down, you have done well by her.”

That said, health insurance can really take the load off of a financial burden should your cat fall seriously ill. Keep in mind that while a visit to a veterinarian tends to be less expensive than a visit to a physician who treats people, the costs of veterinary medical care are in every other way equal to those of medical care for people. Operations, diagnostic screenings like X-rays and ultrasounds, prescription drugs — they are all equivalent in underlying cost whether they are being provided for animals or people.

There are two terrific things about health insurance for your cat:

The monthly premiums do not range from hundreds of dollars a month to more than $1,000, as they do for people. Policies for a cat cost from about $10 to $60 a month, depending on the cat’s age and breed and what the plan covers. (Some plans pay the cost of annual checkups, plus the fees incurred with catastrophic events.)

None of the insurance plans works like an HMO. That is, there are no “in network” and “out of network” veterinarians. You can bring your cat to any doctor you choose.

Various Options

There is no “best” health insurance plan or company. You have to look at different firms’ options and choose the one that is right for you. Veterinary Pet Insurance (petinsurance.com) and PetCare Pet Insurance (petcareinsurance.com) are two of the largest and reputable companies. Another is PetPlan USA (gopetplan.com), recommended by the Humane Society of the United States. There’s also Trupanion (trupanion.com) and one owned by Purina (purinacare.com) that, like the others mentioned here, has received good reviews. The ASPCA offers pet health insurance, too, as do other organizations.

Comparing plans shouldn’t prove too complicated. When reviewing the policies, see what’s covered, and to what degree. Some plans cover 90 percent of costs, others, 80 percent. Still other policies reimburse based on what they think a procedure should cost according to their benefits schedule — which may or may not be close to what your cat’s doctor has charged.

Along with basic number crunching (which should also include looking at deductibles and copays), look at age limitations. Some companies won’t insure a cat beyond a certain age unless they were already insuring your pet when she was younger.

Preexisting conditions

Take a close look at the terms for preexisting conditions, too. No pet health insurance company will cover a preexisting condition. But the definition of “preexisting” morphs from firm to firm. In some cases, “preexisting” can even refer to a condition your cat develops after you buy the policy, meaning the year your cat develops the problem is the last year that the company will cover charges for it. (That’s why the Humane Society recommends PetPlan USA. It doesn’t drop a cat’s coverage following diagnosis – nor does it deny coverage based on age, which is in line with the Humane Society’s view on the adoption of older pets.)

Whichever plan you choose, be certain that it covers emergencies and dire illnesses, not just wellness exams and other routine care. The cost of routine care isn’t what crushes a budget.

Bear in mind that no insurer will pay your veterinarian directly. You have to have enough money on hand (perhaps with a high credit card limit) to pay for your cat’s care and then get reimbursed by the health insurance company. In addition, you have to fill out and send in the claims form yourself – it is not the responsibility of the veterinarian’s administrative staff. That said, you’re not going to be buried knee deep in arcane “mother’s maiden name” paperwork. The forms are easy to complete and generally not more than a single page. You just need to stay on top of it.

It’s also important to note that pet healthcare policies have a lower lifetime cap than policies for people — somewhere along the lines of $150,000 rather than the $3 million or so allotted for human care. But that’s what helps keep down the cost of the monthly premiums. Besides, the chances that your cat will need more than $100,000 worth of treatment to see her through an illness are infinitesimally small.

The Winters learned all these lessons the hard way. Simone became even sicker for the first couple of days after they brought her home, and they cradled her miserably as they watched her slip away, ruing their hesitation to take her in at the first sign of illness because of their strapped finances.

Luckily, a happy ending

But then Mrs. Winter’s sister started forcing water into Simone’s mouth with a syringe, which gave the cat the strength to start eating. She then went on to live another 11 years, happily sunning herself and swatting anybody who tried to pet her while she rested comfortably on her perch in the linen closet. Which proves one thing: the mysteries of pet health insurance are penetrable; the mysteries of cats, not so much. — Larry Lindner

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