PhotoHealth insurance has been a hot topic of conversation since 2010, when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act requiring everyone to buy health insurance. But while health policies for people have dominated the conversation, healthy policies for pets have quietly become a growing enterprise.

Maybe you haven't given pet insurance much thought. But consumers routinely spend hundreds – even thousands – of dollars on veterinary bills when their furry friends get hurt or sick. Dozens of companies have moved in to offer insurance plans that can offset these significant medical expenses.

According to Petfinder, a pet website, the annual veterinary cost for a cat – including routine exams and vaccinations – can be $350. Emergency care can be as much as $2,000. Generally, veterinary care cost for dogs is higher.

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance Jan. 3, 2014, 1:35 p.m.
Consumers rate ASPCA Pet Health Insurance

Among the coverage available to consumers is a package of policies sold by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(ASPCA).

Just as in human health insurance, its policies differ by state. In Alabama, for example, there are four levels of coverage offered, with increasingly higher incident limits. The Level One limit is $2,500 – Level Four is $7000. This is the maximum amount the policy will pay out per accident or illness.

Level Four also provides additional coverage for things like hereditary conditions and behaviorial treatments. Levels Three and Four also have a wellness option, limiting your cost for routine preventive treatments to $12 per month, whether you've met your deductible or not.

James of Lake Forest, Calif., however, is unhappy about the coverage ASPCA provided for his pet.

"I've had ASPCA for some years. They always pay late, but at least they pay. Recently, they refused payment for a routine modality saying it was 'alternative' therapy," he said in a ConsumerAffairs review. "Neither my vet nor any other vet I consulted considers this treatment alternative. Neither does the AKA. But ASPCA refuses to defend their opinion and simply says it is alternative because that's what they say."

Veterinary Pet Insurance

Veterinary Pet Insurance Jan. 3, 2014, 1:32 p.m.
Consumers rate Veterinary Pet Insurance

Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) also provides insurance coverage for your pet. It has three levels of coverage – Emergency, Economical and Comprehensive. Emergency service covers accidents only and costs $10-$11 a month. Economical covers accidents and illness and costs $19-$27 a month. Comprehensive includes hereditary disease and runs $25-$35 per 

All three levels allow you to use any veterinarian for treatment and some plans promise your dog won't be dropped from coverage, regardless of the number of claims.

Be sure you understand what each level provides if you choose VPI. David of Easton, Md., was very unhappy with the coverage he received.

"I had VPI's Superior Plan for six years at almost $50 per month. I realize that every company is in business to make money and I don't begrudge them that at all. However, the one major claim that I had for more than $1,100.00 they paid $330.00," David said in a ConsumerAffairs review. "When I questioned why they paid so little of the total costs, including surgery, the person on the phone said 'Well, if you upgrade to our next higher plan we pay more.'"

Healthy Paws

Healthy Paws Pet Insurance also provides a variety of health plans for both dogs and cats. Rates are determined in large part by the amount of the deductible and reimbursement rate. Policies do not place restrictions on hereditary and congenital conditions as long as your veterinarian has not previously noted clinical symptoms. Policies do not cover pre-existing conditions.

The plans also do not cover routine veterinary care, such as vaccinations, teeth-cleaning, spay/neuter procedures or a check-up.

Even some mainline insurance companies offer pet policies. For example, as part of its auto insurance. Progressive offers at no added cost its Pet Injury Coverage. It provides protection up to $1,000 if your pet is injured while in the car with you. The company also offers a pet health insurance policy with more far-reaching coverage for illnesses, prescribed medications, hospitalization, and accidents.

Banfield

Banfield Pet Hospital Jan. 3, 2014, 1:47 p.m.
Consumers rate Banfield Pet Hospital

Banfield Pet Hospital outlets are located in PetSmart stores although Banfield is owned mostly by candy giant Mars, which makes Pedigree and Whiskas pet food as well as M&Ms, Skittles and other candies.

It is the subject of hundreds of complaints to ConsumerAffairs and was also named in a class action suit last November.

The suit charges that Banfield finds ways to upsell unnecessary services, wiping out the discounts it offers under its "Optimum Wellness Plan," which covers more than 1 million pets nationwide.

Banfield charges a one-time membership fee of $49.95 in addition to monthly payments that, for an adult dog, come to nearly $32 for the cheapest plan. These costs supposedly entitle pet owners to savings with each visit or monthly, but hide what Pero calls "the warped service assumptions and inflated pricing scheme on which the purported savings and discounts are based." 

The lawsuit echoes many of the charges level by consumers in their postings to ConsumerAffairs.

"First of all, they are taking some serious money out of my account. Even when I don't even take the dog to the vet they are still taking $100 out of my account every month! A rip off!" Suellen of Everett, Mass., said. "And when I take him to the vet they will still charge me for their 'extras' that should be included in the plan!"

Is it worth it?

Is pet insurance worth it? Several years ago the Wall Street Journal insured four pets and monitored the expense of policies against the expense of care. It determined that the premiums actually cost more than the care.

But costs have risen since then so each pet owner should probably consider his or her own situation. If you've had your pet for a while, review past vet bills and find out what you have actually spent on care.

It may be that accident-only coverage – which tends to be the cheapest – makes the most economic sense. Chances are you won't need it but if you do, it could not only save your pet's life, it could save thousands of dollars.


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