How to Help Pay for Veterinary Care
With pet insurance and third-party payment plans, you can prepare for the unexpected
Dusty, an active 5-year-old Retriever mix, was three miles into a five-mile hike with her family when she abruptly stopped. She’d blown out her knee. The next day, after a consult with the veterinarian to schedule surgery, her owners lifted her out of the car at home. Dusty took two steps and collapsed. The other knee had just gone out, too. The family’s costs just doubled.
It’s on the back of every pet owner’s mind: If something catastrophic happens, how will I pay for veterinary care? “We’ve gotten to the point where we can do so much more for a pet’s health than ever before,” says Dr. Karen E. Felsted, CPA, MS, CVPM, and CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues in Schaumburg, Ill. Along with advances in medical technologies and care, come higher prices. “Smart pet owners plan ahead,” says Dr. Felsted. “It makes sense to think about it now before something awful happens.”
Unless you’ve stashed a wad of bills under your mattress, there are two main financial options to consider. “One is preemptive and one is reactive,” explains Dr. Robin Downing, owner of Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Windsor, Colo. “With one, like pet insurance, you can plan ahead for routine care costs and know you’re covered for a major event. With the other, like a third-party payment plan, you’re usually looking for help paying a large, immediate cost like surgery.” Here’s more about both of these options.
If you’re disciplined enough to put money aside for your pet’s wellness and routine care, you may think pet insurance isn’t for you. But think carefully. “It’s hard for most people to suddenly pull out thousands of dollars for an emergency medical situation,” says Dr. Felsted.
Like car and home insurance, pet insurance coverage can vary. Some plans cover only accidents and illness, while others will help you get wellness care for your pet. Do your homework and check different plans and their reimbursement policies. Be sure to ask your veterinarian whether he or she recommends certain plans or policies.
Many veterinarians recommend insurance companies offering predetermined reimbursements based on a benefits schedule. These policies clearly detail coverage parameters and limits so you know how much to expect back after submitting a claim. With most plans, you choose your deductible. A lower premium means a higher deductible, so decide how much you want to pay out of pocket and what monthly payment fits your budget.
Insurance isn’t only about the financials. “The choice between a percent-reimbursement policy and one that pays predetermined amounts is only one factor you should look at when choosing the right pet insurance company,” Dr. Felsted says. “A company that pays a high percent reimbursement may look great on the surface, but if it excludes from payment many of the services you will need, then it might not be the right plan for you.”
Another tip about insurance: The best time to get a policy for your pet is when he’s young, since insurance could cover much of the cost of wellness and routine care, as well as any major problems. You can still insure older pets (though pre-existing conditions may not be covered), so don’t cross insurance off the list.
If you’re faced with a medical bill you can’t cover at the moment, you could try a third-party payment plan. “If your pet has an urgent need, it becomes an issue of quality of life,” says Dr. Ryan Gates with Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. “For example, if you’ve got a cat with advanced dental disease, that mouth hurts. If you take time to save for the procedure, your pet won’t be in the best shape during that time.”
Third-party payment plans step in to pay bills directly to the veterinarian. You make monthly payments to the plan provider. “You apply for credit, basically,” Dr. Gates says. “You bring them an estimate of the treatment plan and, if you’re approved, the veterinarian gets paid the full amount upfront and your pet can receive the necessary treatment right away.”
Terms vary depending on the company you choose. For example, your monthly payments could extend over a six- to 12-month term. If you pay the balance in full during that time, you are not charged interest. If you don’t make the agreed-upon payments, you may incur interest charges. So ask whether your veterinary practice accepts third-party payment plans. If it does, they might be a good option for you if you’re diligent about payment deadlines.
Regardless of whether you pay out of pocket or opt for pet insurance, payment plans, or both, the time to start planning is now. Look into your options. And remember that even though discussing payment can be uncomfortable, it’s important to be upfront with your veterinarian. By being open, the doctor can recommend the treatment plans that best fit your pet’s healthcare needs and your family’s finances.
They Did What? Strangest Claims
No one expects his or her dog to bite a running chainsaw or tangle with a carnivorous Australian lizard, but these are just a couple of the unusual accidents that resulted in pet insurance claims submitted to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. last year.
The company, which receives more than 80,000 claims on average every month, nominates one unusual claim each month. The claim selected by the public as the most unusual of the year receives the annual VPI Hambone Award, named after a VPI-insured dog that sneaked into a refrigerator and ate an entire Thanksgiving ham while waiting to be found. Like all pets nominated for the Hambone Award, the dog, who suffered a mild case of hypothermia, made a full recovery and received reimbursement from VPI for eligible treatment costs.
“We hope that the Hambone Award campaign inspires pet owners to consider how they would handle an emergency situation—from locating a nearby emergency clinic to paying an unexpected bill,” said VPI spokesman Grant Biniasz. Voting for the 2010 Hambone Award wrapped up in August. The award went to Ellie, a Labrador Retriever in Santee, Calif., who ate an entire beehive and its inhabitants.