I remember the very first time a client presented me with a claim form for their pet’s health insurance policy. I felt my lunch lurch in the pit of my stomach—it was 1998…and vet medicine seemed so much “easier” then.

Most vets had misgivings about pet insurance in the beginning, but fast-forward a decade later and (generally speaking) we vets seem almost at ease with the pet health insurance industry—dare I say, complacent? But, then, less than 5% of our clients carry it, so it’s not exactly a big issue for us, yet, is it?

If my practice is in any way exemplary, it’s the more educated, relatively affluent clientele that comprises the majority of our health insurance users. Their general consensus? They like the product. They consider themselves smarter consumers for finding a novel way to save a buck. And they might be on target…

But, as we all know, insurance companies, like Las Vegas casinos, are not in the business of losing money. It’s true that the average pet insurance user will lose money in the deal. What they’ll gain is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they’ll be able to afford a nightmare scenario, should it unexpectedly come their way. That’s what insurance is all about. And these companies deserve their premiums if they do manage to dig us out of our financial holes in times of need.

Yet it’s an interesting observation, albeit somewhat anecdotal, that the majority of pet health insurance users are not the pet owners who need insurance to pay for otherwise unaffordable procedures. Instead, they’re the ones who discovered an ad in Martha Stewart Living, looked it up online and concluded that, “With my huge pet expenses, I’m sure to save money on this deal.”

So the question is, is insurance really making a difference? Are these companies truly offering the financial products pet owners need—where we most need it? After all, their much-touted promise is to serve pets by preventing euthanasia. Are they really doing that?

IMO—not yet. Why? Because, so far, they’ve targeted upscale clients (traditionally the higher margin clients in the insurance game) instead of the lower-income pet owners who really need it.

I guess that’s OK. After all, every new business concept needs a group of early adopters—the serious pet people with disposable incomes, in this case. My beef is with their pitch—enlisting vets (their de-facto salespeople) with pledges to enhance client compliance where it counts…in a life and death crisis.

Sure, that may be the long-term plan but, for now? It’s my educated, middle-class clients all the way—the ones who could feasibly find the money if they had to, not the ones who’d put a pet to sleep because they needed to pay the rent and their kids’ school clothes before paying for Fluffy’s surgery.

I’ll admit that my reason for hitting this hot button comes down to a purely selfish moment in my life. As the proud parent of one geriatric dog and one new puppy, I thought I could get in on some of that health insurance action, too.

Because I can afford to finance my own basic accidents and illnesses, you might think me foolish for entertaining such a deviant notion. But what about serious trauma or lymphoma? In these cases I want my dogs treated by specialists. And while I’m a colleague, I don’t expect free ultrasounds, blood products or chemoptherapeutics. As you well know, today’s high-tech medicine has a very high price—and it’s climbing.

                       

Like the majority of the US pet-owning population, I place no limit on the amount I’m willing to spend on my pets in a crisis. But my bank account and my credit cards do.

So here comes the challenge: Could I find a plan that would keep me from either euthanizing my pet or relying on the kindness (or credit) of colleagues in the event of the unthinkable?

Maybe. If I’m willing to pay premiums well over $500 a year I can have something close to $3500 per-incident coverage—but with all kinds of restrictions and surcharges and breed exemptions and co-pays.

In my research, I discovered that these plans are not built for those at risk due to limited funds. They’re aimed at those who dislike having to pay more than $50 per visit (the typical price of a deductible). For the record, the ASPCA’s plan comes close, offering about $2,000 in “accident-only” coverage for $108 a year. Yet even this is no help for the parvo, the distemper and the kennel cough I see coming from the shelters, much less a blocked cat or a bloat.

What I want (and what the vast majority of us really need) is a selection of plans with a variety of deductibles aimed at reimbursing for catastrophic accidents and illnesses.

While the pet-savvy populace might be attracted to insurance coverage to save money, and while it may boost veterinary incomes, most pet owners actually need these plans if they’re to save their pets’ lives in a crisis.

If our pet health insurance companies truly don’t want pet owners to lose their pets due to limited finances, then why don’t they write up some policies that keep pace with the rising price of high-tech vet medicine? And how about marketing to a public beyond the suburbs? After all, offering real-life, life-saving options to a large group of at-risk pets is what pet health insurance says it does—and what it should continue to aspire to.