- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

Employers increasingly are offering health insurance for Fido and Fluffy to help workers cover the rising cost of pet care.
"Many employees here view their pets like their children," said Agnus Stevens, spokeswoman for Amerix Corp., a nonprofit credit counseling agency in Columbia, Md. that began offering insurance for workers' pets in January. "They want a way to safeguard their pets against accidents or illnesses."
Taking Fido to the vet is the largest expense for U.S. pet owners, amounting to $11.1 billion each year. And the cost is rising 8 percent a year.
The average checkup for man's best friend costs $196, while cat owners pay $104, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a D.C. nonprofit representing about 6,700 veterinarians.
Although owners with pet insurance make up less than 1 percent of the pet-loving population, the number of companies offering the benefit doubled in the past decade, said Dr. David Goodnight, a veterinarian with Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., the nation's largest provider of pet insurance.
The rising cost of animal health care is putting pet insurance benefits in higher demand, allowing the Brea, Calif., company to grow 40 percent annually during the past five years, said Dr. Goodnight, executive vice president of business development.
"People want what's best for their pets, and demanding better health care will naturally increase the price," he said. "Pet insurance gives owners a way to meet the costs without making hard decisions," such as choosing euthanasia rather than facing the high cost of surgery.
Jeff Hazard, a senior compensation analyst at Ascend One Corp., the Columbia holding company for Amerix, said he pays $325 annually to insure Daisy, his 15-month-old chocolate Labrador. Mr. Hazard, a Baltimore resident, already has paid $500 in co-payments for Daisy's trips to the vet to get shots and to be treated for minor eye problems as well as for a bite by another dog.
"She's going through all the normal things a puppy goes through, but the bills add up," said Mr. Hazard, who adopted Daisy in October 2001. "I saw my parents pay thousands of dollars when our family dog [Jenny] started getting ill, and they did it out of their pockets."
Premiums depend on the pet's age, type and the number of pets per plan, Dr. Goodnight said.
Health care insurance for dogs costs the most, followed by cats, then birds, according to a 1996 report from the veterinarians group. For example, a standard plan for a 2-year-old golden retriever in the District, Maryland or Virginia runs about $132 a year.
Mr. Hazard said he added coverage of treatments and shots to help pay for Daisy's heart worm pills and rabies inoculations, which aren't included in the standard plans.
"I was glad to do it through the company because of all the plans out there, and I wanted something that gives me peace of mind that if something happens to Daisy, I have the means to give her the best care," Mr. Hazard said.
Companies signing on for pet insurance range from traditional mom and pop stores to large, high-tech corporations, Dr. Goodnight said.
"Most are signing on because it's popular, but a lot are amazed when 50 percent of their employees pay into the premiums," he said.
Miller Brewing Co.'s 6,500 employees racked up a 45 percent participation rate, the largest of any subsidiary of Philip Morris Cos. Inc. The company began offering the benefit four years ago with Kraft Foods Inc. and other Philip Morris companies as part of a corporate initiative, said Sue Rowe, employee programs manager for the Milwaukee brewery.
"We're just a pet-loving group," she said, adding that Miller would continue the program as a subsidiary of SABMiller PLC, which bought the brewery last summer.
Miller uses a program similar to one that EBay Inc., Office Depot Inc. and the National Rehabilitation Association offer their employees.
Employees pay $7 to $30 per paycheck for a basic plan that reimburses up to 80 percent of office visits, X-rays, diagnostic and lab tests, prescriptions, hospitalization and surgeries.
Companies offer different payment methods. Miller and EBay prefer direct paycheck deductions, while companies such as Amerix and Anteon Corp. say the relative novelty of the benefit, which emerged in company insurance policies in the past 15 years, has them starting small with group discounts.
"For right now, we wanted something simple that would give us an idea on how well-received pet insurance would be with the program," said Kerri Griffin, employee benefits analyst for Anteon, a Fairfax information technology company.
Anteon's pet benefit program has seen few participants since it began in April, but Ms. Griffin said the company expects the number to more than double as pet owners update insurance policies this month.
"More pet owners are likely to add on this benefit when they can take care of all their insurance needs in one fell swoop," Ms. Griffin said.

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