Pet health insurance could be money saver for furry friends

Three years ago, Perla Zepeda’s family lost a beloved family member. Their dog, Sandy, had swallowed an unknown object, causing internal damage. She was rushed to an emergency veterinary hospital in Yakima, but doctors couldn’t save her.

“We grieved for about three months,” Zepeda said.

They also faced more than $1,000 in veterinary bills.

Shortly after their dog died, Farmers Insurance began offering pet insurance plans that could have defrayed the cost.

Farmers joined forces with Pets Best to offer savings to those looking for health insurance for their cats and dogs in September 2014.

The company recognized about 50 percent of the households in the United States are pet owners, and that the pet health insurance has grown into a $774 million industry since TV collie Lassie received the first pet insurance policy in the early 1980s.

“A growing number of American pet owners are recognizing the financial and emotional benefits of insuring their four-legged family members,” said Jack Stephens, founder of Pets Best.

Today, the pet insurance market has more than twelve companies offering plans, and many also market and underwrite co-branded products.

The North American Pet Health Insurance Association reports that more than 1.6 million pets were insured in 2015, representing an average annual growth of 12 percent over the previous year.

“We saw a need for it,” Zepeda said. She’s been a Farmers insurance agent for more than a decade. “We had questions from customers like, ‘What if something happens to my dog, does my homeowners’ insurance cover it?’ ”

A poll conducted by Farmers found that three out of 10 customers with pets expressed interest in adding pet insurance to their existing policies.

Farmers pet policies are comprised of three levels, with various annual coverage and lifetime levels. The level one policy, for example, covers up to $5,000 a year and has a $100,000 lifetime coverage limit. The level three plan has a $20,000 annual limit and $200,000 lifetime cap.

Perla Zepeda’s youngest children, Avarie, Alicia, and Aden, who is holding the Yorkshire Chihuahua puppy named Joaquin, pose with their grandmother and older brother Jacob.

Perla Zepeda’s youngest children, Avarie, Alicia, and Aden, who is holding the Yorkshire Chihuahua puppy named Joaquin, pose with their grandmother and older brother Jacob.

“All three will cover accidental illness and cancer,” Zepeda said. “We don’t see the importance of coverage until we lose our pets, but the coverage our plans offer are very good.”

Plans do not cover pre-existing conditions, but do cover hereditary conditions, flea and tick treatment, and spay and neutering. There are also cancer-only plans, or accident-only plans.

Customers can tailor their plans to fit their needs, she said, explaining that you can pick your co-pay and deductible, which can range from zero to $1,000.

“There’s also alternative therapy coverage, which will cover chiropractic and acupuncture therapy. We do cover pregnancy, but it excludes breeding and the reproductive process,” Zepeda said.

Farmers plans allow customers to visit any licensed veterinarian in the world. Reimbursements are calculated from the bill and claims are generally handled within two to five days.

The insurance association reports that accident and illness plans are the main drivers in the pet health insurance market, with less than five percent of pets insured with accident-only plans.

It’s most common for customers to fill out a claim form and submit a reimbursement claim to their insurance company. However, Banfield Pet Hospitals, which are inside PetSmart stores, offers its own type of insurance with three levels.

Feline plans range from $19.95 per month to $32.95 a month, while canine plans range from $25.95 to $42.95 per month. The basic plan includes two comprehensive exams per year, deworming, diagnostic testing and vaccinations. All three plans also offer discounted office visits from 10 percent to 20 percent based on the level.

Zepeda said she has not sold a pet insurance policy that costs more than $50 a month. Plus, Farmers customers benefit from a 5 percent discount in policy pricing — although you don’t have to have a current Farmers policy to buy pet health insurance.

Recently, Zepeda’s family adopted a Yorkie Chihuahua they named Joaquin, a puppy who’s wiggled his way into their hearts.

“Coverage for him only costs me $20 a month. I waste more on coffee — this is worth it. I love my furry friends,” she said, adding that even preventative care can be costly without insurance. “I can easily spend $300 in one (veterinary) visit with the shots they need. We have health insurance for ourselves, we should have it for our pets as well.”

Farmers Insurance has an online form for people interested in coverage quotes, which can be found at: farmers.com/pet-insurance.

While Zepeda works out of her office in Chelan, she services clients throughout the Northwest. Larry Rindlisbacher, a Farmers Insurance agent in Richland, can also talk to potential clients about the various plans and coverage amounts.

Banfield plan information can be found at banfield.com.

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