Everything you always wanted to know about pet insurance (but were afraid to ask)


Use this advice to learn the best strategies to talk to pet owners about how to pay for the care their pets need. Then take your floundering pet insurance program and boost it to a new level of service to protect the pets you serve.

Money. It can be such an ugly word, especially when it's the single thing standing between your practice and the pet that so desperately needs your care. You've seen it many times—the pet that could have been saved, if only there were a little more money. It's enough to break your heart.

You can't save every pet, but you can help by preparing pet owners for their pets' care. First, start with the quick quiz at left. Then consider this advice to learn about how to make payment options work for your practice:

1. Kick your passive marketing habit

Many practices passively market pet insurance by placing insurance brochures in the reception area and in new puppy and kitten packets. But is it any surprise that pet owners aren't signing up in droves if this is the extent of the team's involvement? Team members must believe in pet insurance—they must have seen it help—to convince pet owners that it's worthwhile.

Quick quiz:

So take a moment and ask yourself this: What do you think about insurance? Do you know enough about it to make an informed decision or to recommend it to clients? Be honest. A good way to decide whether pet insurance is something you believe in is to investigate it more thoroughly. Consider what you'd want in a pet insurance policy. Think about the financial concerns pet owners most often express. Then examine the policies and see if any fit these criteria.

If you and the rest of your team decide pet insurance is a good option for pet owners, our sources say it's important to select just a few that you recommend—for several reasons. First, imagine you're the client. When you open that puppy or kitten kit and that batch of pet insurance brochures falls out, how do you feel? Overwhelmed? Irritated? Would you wish someone with more animal health experience would help you make sense of your options?

Jessica Goodman Lee, CVPM, a practice development consultant with Brakke Consulting, says pet owners with pet insurance will generally spend twice as much with a practice over the course of a pet's life. A common mistake, Lee says, is to provide brochures for all of the companies. Not only is it confusing for clients, but you're failing to guide them in making an important healthcare choice for their pets. Instead, she advises choosing a couple of pet insurance companies your whole team believes in to recommend to clients.

2. Choose your top providers

Dr. Vicki Bannerman owns Adobe Animal Hospital of Soquel in Santa Cruz, Calif. To start, Dr. Bannerman recommends inviting the pet insurance companies you favor to the practice to conduct lunch-and-learn sessions for your team. This gives your team a basis to begin comparing policies and ask questions—and, more important, it involves your team in choosing the pet insurance you recommend, which is critical if you want a successful pet insurance program your team members will help promote.

As a team, Dr. Bannerman says it's important to set your criteria. Once you've listened to the presentations, your team can make decisions. Perhaps one of your criteria will be based on which pet insurance companies your team members would prefer as pet owners.

3. Teach without overwhelming

"We strive to educate our clients on the benefits of pet insurance without bombarding them with overwhelming information," says Christine Akers, a receptionist and pet insurance coordinator at Bowman Animal Hospital in Raleigh, N.C. "We lay the tracks with basic knowledge and encourage them to explore the options of pet insurance. I've been in an insurance coordinator position for the past 10 years, and in my position I've found I can help guide pet owners through the fine print that's difficult for new policyholders to understand."

While Adobe Animal Hospital of Soquel has new pet packets, Dr. Bannerman admits pet owners can be overwhelmed by all of the information the team members try to convey in the first few visits. So they place insurance brochures in the packets and encourage pet owners to review them. Then when the pet returns for a follow-up visit, they make sure to broach the topic again. They also discuss pet insurance at every new-patient visit, even if the pet is an adult, and they refer clients to their website insurance page for additional information so pet owners have reliable resources to conduct research on pet insurance.

Pet insurance: A benefit that benefits the practice

Lee adds that she discourages team members from telling clients to just go to the Internet to research all of the companies and choose one. It's much more effective and efficient for you and the client if you guide them to the best resources to research pet insurance, just as you would guide them to the most reliable pet healthcare resources on the web.

Remember, Lee says, clients trust their veterinarian to be knowledgeable and make the best recommendation on behalf of their pet. Consider dedicating a page on your own website to payment options, including pet insurance, third-party payment plans, and any other payment options you accept. Lee says you should make sure to include links to the companies your practice recommends to make it easy for pet owners to find the companies you've discussed with them.

It's also a good idea to mention these programs up front, Lee says, because some of your payment options may work to complement each other. For example, since pet owners pay up front and then are reimbursed from pet insurance plans, third-party payment plans can cover unexpected expenses short-term until clients receive reimbursement.

4. Focus on service

Some practices, such as Adobe Animal Hospital of Soquel and Bowman Animal Hospital, file claims directly for pet owners. Here's how it works: One team member is the insurance expert. She ensures they don't fall behind with the paperwork. In many cases, she's also educated herself on how to complete the forms to increase the chances the claim is accepted the first time it's submitted. She's also prepared to answer the general questions pet owners tend to ask about insurance.

Every team member, however, needs to know whether your practice recommends pet insurance. And if you do, they need to know the companies your practice recommends and why you've chosen them. And remember, when clients ask specific questions about how much insurance will cover for specific procedures, it's best to refer them to a representative with the pet insurance company for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Also keep in mind that insurance companies may offer different levels of coverage, and the deductible or amount the client opts to pay may influence what their policy covers. Dr. Bannerman says it's important to recognize that pet owners will have different priorities and preferences for pet insurance coverage. So it's always a good idea to encourage pet owners to call companies to ask their questions about the coverage they're selecting.

Dr. Bannerman says she opted to have her practice file the paperwork for pet owners because it's an extra level of service she can offer. "We're not the cheapest game in town, and we don't want to be. My clients expect a higher level of preventive medicine, care, and customer service," she says. "And filing pet insurance claims is just another piece of that puzzle for us."

They keep a master copy of the pet owner's claim form in the file and use a yellow highlighter to mark it as a master copy. When they copy the form, the highlighter doesn't copy. This way they always have a copy of the form on hand, and they can fill out the paperwork the pet owner needs to submit the claim quickly.

"It's easier for us, I think, in the long run having the paperwork there than having clients call later because they forgot to send the claim," she says. "If it's already there and we take care of it at the time of checkout, we spend less time dealing with it. So if we address it right then, I get the claim that afternoon when it's fresh in my mind and I can remember what it was about instead of needing to read back pages and pages through the pet's medical record. So we've found that it actually is a little bit of a time saver."

5. Choose a point person

When you choose an insurance point person, Dr. Bannerman recommends selecting someone who possesses patience and an eye for detail and works in a timely manner. Many pet owners are proactive, and when they visit they ask about pet insurance. She says this shows consumers are becoming more savvy and hearing about insurance, but they sometimes feel overwhelmed when they search for pet insurance on the web and see all of the possible options. This is where team members can help by narrowing the pet owner's search. Ask pet owners questions: "Why do you want insurance? What do you want covered? Eye and ear exams or catastrophic coverage?"

Dr. Bannerman says she's seeing more pet owners with insurance now than ever before. Her insurance specialist files two to three claims a day, when she used to file two or three a week.

What’s your role?

To smooth the path, Lee recommends establishing a protocol for who in your practice will speak to pet owners about pet insurance and when that conversation will occur. It's also important to document these conversations in the patient's medical record so that the message can be reinforced by other team members. (For guidance, see "What's your role?".) And don't restrict your pet insurance talks to puppies and kittens. Insurance may be affordable for adult pets as long as they don't have extensive pre-existing medical conditions. "It's a conversation you should have with all of your clients with healthy pets," Lee says. "The bottom line is, these programs are better for the pet. People can do what they need to do for their pet."

Portia Stewart is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kan.

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