Peticare for All!

Any regular listeners of the podcast won’t be surprised to hear that Gen Xers and Millennials are going into debt for healthcare… but what if we told you that this time it’s for their pets! More Americans are spending more money on healthcare for their beloved pets, which means insurance companies are getting in on the action and cashing in! Today we’ll be digging into the wild world of pet insurance and what Peticare for All could mean for our four-legged friends (and zero-legged friends, and more than 4)!

Show Notes

Why talk about pet healthcare? MOSTLY so Gillian and Ben can show off Coretta Scott Cat and Koda the Medicare for All dog. Obligatory cute pet appearances out of the way, Gillian introduces our guest for this episode: Chris Dupuis, DVM is a vet and owner of the Wheatland Animal Hospital in Neighborville Illinois.

Chris definitely saw an uptick in pet ownership during the pandemic. Today, about 70% of US households own at least 1 pet, and Americans are paying a total of $32.3 billion on vet care.

Gillian went down a research rabbit hole, and found that as of 2020 nearly half (47%) of pet owners had gone into debt for their pet, up from 36% in 2019. This average covers a huge generational divide, though: 66% of Gen X’ers have gone into debt for their pets, while only 23% of Baby Boomers have done so.

Chris notes that one reason could be that veterinary costs have gone up a lot over the last generation, much like College tuition. Chris’s dad, who founded the clinic, originally charged $8 for an exam in the late 1980s!

For human health, of course most of us turn to health insurance to protect ourselves from large unexpected costs that might leave us in debt. What about pet insurance? Chris explains that pet insurance is very different: pet insurers directly reimburse pet owners for their (allowed) expenses, so vets generally don’t get paid directly by insurance companies or have to deal with them at all. In Chris’s experience, many of his clients buy pet insurance policies without realizing how little it actually covers, or the restrictions involved (a lot like Medicare Advantage plans!).

So how bad is pet insurance? Virtually no plans will cover pre-existing conditions (which was common in human insurance plans until it was banned by the Affordable Care Act), including breeds that are frequently prone to certain health problems. There is very little regulation of pet insurance, so exclusions, deductibles, and payment limits are rampant. Both premiums and deductibles are often decided by the species, breed, gender, age and location of an animal – older pets in particular are very expensive and difficult to insure.

Because of this, very few people have pet insurance: only 3.5 million (less than 2%) of pets in America were insured in 2020. Chris says that vets themselves are often not very educated on pet insurance options for their clients, in part because there are so many plans and the plan limitations are so complex.

As important background, Chris explains that vets are generally underpaid (combined with massive college debts), and vet techs are EXTREMELY underpaid – sometimes earning barely more than retail workers ($15-$21/hour). This puts vet clinics in a difficult position when they have clients who can’t afford to pay for urgent or emergency care for their pets. Unlike human hospitals, which receive some “uncompensated care” funds from the federal government for treating patients who can’t pay, vet clinics and hospitals receive no such funds for providing free or charity care, and have very small margins. Both vets and vet techs have much higher than average suicide rates because of this stress, and there is extremely high turnover of vet techs.

Chris confirms what many of us have experienced, though: there are wild variations in the costs charged by vet clinics for the same care. Chris believes the high outlier costs are in part due to private equity firms buying up vet clinics and hospitals across the country, and trying to milk them for as much profits as they can [our words, not his!].

This leads us to the big question of this episode: as a society, how SHOULD we be paying for and providing access to pet healthcare? Is it moral for a pet to be euthanized because its owner doesn’t have enough money to pay for needed care? Are pets essentially luxury items, which are the full responsibility of the owner, or are they important members of our society, with major benefits to our physical and mental health, and we have a social responsibility to care for them?

Chris reminds us that our friends and family members who are least able to afford pet care, are also those who most need and benefit from a pet’s companionship, including veterans, and those dealing with homelessness or underhousing. There needs to be a support system for these folks and their pets. There are some charities that do a good job addressing this, but it’s not enough. Chris says that vets have a moral code for treating all animals that need care, but unlike human healthcare providers, they have no financial backing for that morality.

Chris describes a widespread practice by vet clinics in which clients who can’t afford their pet’s urgent care, will have the care provided for free only if they sign over ownership of the pet to the clinic (!!!), who will then rehouse the pet with a new owner (who presumably has more resources to pay for future care).

GoFundMe drives are also very common for owners who cannot afford needed care for their pets, so they’ll put thousands of dollars on their credit card and hope to raise that through their social networks.

A recent column in the LA Times by David Lazarus proposed an actual solution: a public Peticare for All system. Get ready for our next organizing campaign!

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