Pet Health Insurance and Corporatization of Companion Animal Veterinary Services

This topic of pet health insurance, in the dark shadow of America’s human health insurance mess and less and less affordable health care, may seem absurd. But as I have emphasized in earlier writings, cat and dog owners should discuss this with their veterinarians especially if they have a purebred or “designer” puppy or kitten with extreme physical traits such as pushed-in faces ( braychcephaly), twisted limbs and extreme infantilism ( paedomorphosis) and probable genetic/inherited health problems which may surface with maturity. DNA tests are now available to identify some of these.

​A Pet Insurance study by LendEDU.com gives some insights, noting that only16.85 percent of cat owners surveyed had pet insurance while 26.72 percent had coverage for their dogs. Of those with Full Coverage, 85.33 percent thought that their pet insurance was worth it as did 82.14 of those with Accidents & ​Illness coverage, but only 63.64 percent of respondents with Accidents Only coverage thought it was worth it. 67.52 percent of the respondents with pet insurance learned about it from their veterinarians.

To help pet owners decide, there are some on-line information sources: https://www.consumeraffairs.com/pets/pet-insurance/ and Consumer Reportswww.consumerreports.org/pet-products/is-pet-insurance-worth-cost/ : also the North American Pet health Insurance Association at www.naphia.org gives a list of members and coverage costs which averaged around $465 for dogs and $ 316 for cats in 2015 for accident and illness insurance per year. Some may be better off setting up their own emergency-care fund for their animal companion and avoid the emotional and financial trap of unforeseen veterinary costs.

The escalating costs of pet health care mean that many cats and dogs are only taken to the veterinarian when they are really ill, which means much cost and animal suffering that might have otherwise been avoided by regular Wellness examinations. To help pet owners understand the complexities and ups and downs of pet health insurance, veterinarian Dog Kenney, DVM has written a helpful guide, Pet Health Insurance: A Veterinarian’s Perspective.( Philosophia Publishing, 2016, Price $ 13.66) For more details visit www.petinsuranceguideus.com.

I was recently solicited by a public relations firm to write about pet health insurance, the communication stating: “ I’d like to offer you a story idea about the true cost of pet care. We love our pets and spare little or no cost to keep them healthy – but that can rack up quite a bill. For example, a report from Healthy Paws Pet Insurance about the cost of caring for pets shows that the most common illness for dogs and cats is stomach issues, which can lead to these costs: Digital X-rays: $150 – $400. Endoscopy: $800 – $1,000. Biopsy: up to $1,500. Ultrasound: $300 – $500. CT scan: $3,000. Total: up to $6,400 – for stomach issues!”

Yet this “most common illness for dogs and cats” can be prevented, and often effectively treated, simply by providing biologically appropriate, healthful diets rather than feeding many of the manufactured cat and dog foods on the market and often sold by veterinarians that can cause “nutrigenic” ( diet-associated) diseases, as documented in my book Healing Animals & the Vision of One Health and in Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Cat and Dog Foods which I co-wrote with two other veterinarians who share my concerns.

This solicitation confirms my concern is that some pet insurance providers, aligned with the corporate consolidation of companion animal veterinary practices, could lead to over-treatment, unwarranted and costly diagnostics and exclusive promotion and sale of particular manufactured pet foods, profitable prescription diets and other services; what some critics say is a one-size-fits-all medical assembly line.

The world’s largest pet food manufacturer, Mars Inc., recently acquired VCA Antech Animal Hospitals with 780 animal hospitals in 43 U.S. states coupled with the acquisition of some 900 Banfield Pet Hospitals in 2007 ( after Banfield acquired Pet Partners, a smaller group of 60 general practices, in 2016) and also of BluePearl, the nation’s biggest chain of companion animal specialty and emergency care clinics with 53 locations in the U.S. according to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, March 1, 2017. With Banfield’s Optimal Wellness Plans, Mars may next become a player in marketing its own pet health insurance schemes.

While such corporate consolidation of veterinary hospitals may have limited benefits for pet owners, an estimated 85-95 % of veterinary hospitals are still owned independently, some merging to create their own collaborative private corporations to reap the benefits of economies of scale and increased profitability by pooling equipment and other capital expenses and integrating specialist referral services. Low-cost, basic service and non-profit animal hospitals, often in association with local animal shelters and humane societies operating in low-income communities are being established across the U.S. The classic model is the U.K’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. Founded in 1917 by animal welfare pioneer, Maria Dickin CBE, the PDSA is the UK’s leading veterinary charity. Operating through a UK-wide network of 51 Pet Hospitals and 380 Pet Practices (contracted private practices), PDSA provides free veterinary care to the sick and injured pets of people in need and promotes responsible pet ownership. Having to euthanize a beloved companion animal for economic reasons is a reality for many people who cannot afford needed veterinary services. This puts an emotional burden also on veterinarians and as a recent extensive survey by Dr. Barry S. Kipperman and associates reveals ( J.Amer Vet Med Assoc. April 1, 2017, p 765-794) is a significant factor in professional career satisfaction and burnout.

It is my hope that companion animal health care will not go the way of the increasingly profit-driven and dysfunctional human health care industry where monopolistic drug companies inflate prescription-drug prices (as they do also with veterinary medicines) and where diagnostic errors and medical mistakes led to more than 250,000 deaths each year in hospitals according to a 2016 Johns Hopkins University study. Owners of companion animals must accept responsibility for their animals’ health with annual Wellness appointments with veterinarians who embrace the principles of preventive and integrative, holistic medicine as advocated by the American Holistic Veterinary Association; and who are amenable to installment and other alternative ways of payment for those who have neither pet health insurance nor the immediate funds available for services rendered.