Pet Insurance or What the Affordable Care Act Missed


This is Ava, my daughter’s 4 year-old Yorkshire Terrier.  Ava lives with us while my daughter is away at college.  Ava is a healthy, spunky little dog with a teddy bear face that actually reminds me of an Ewok from Star Wars fame.  One of her most endearing qualities is that she flashes this cute “Winn-Dixie smile” whenever she greets a family member returning home.  That cute smile was unexpectedly in jeopardy over the recent holidays, when Miss Ava underwent two significant dental procedures that caught me and my wallet totally by surprise.

We were aware that Yorkies are prone to dental issues and so we’ve been diligent about taking her to the vet for annual cleanings, which requires anesthesia and all the expense that goes with that.  As an aside, my wife, who dreads dental visits as if they were rituals of human sacrifice, wants to know why general anesthesia is not an option for human dental cleanings.  Back to Ava’s story… I don’t want to denigrate our former veterinary clinic that previously performed Miss Ava’s annual dental cleaning, but now that we live in the “big city” we took her to larger vet practice this time around.  At this new clinic, they do more than just clean the dog’s teeth.  They take x-rays… a lot of x-rays.  The former vet took none.  The difference is that the x-rays revealed abscesses, a fractured tooth, and four smaller teeth that were just plain missing.

So on the day before Thanksgiving, Miss Ava had four abscessed teeth extracted while I had $1,000 extracted from my wallet.  Worse yet, we weren’t finished.  There were two problem molars (one of which was the aforementioned fractured tooth) that are important to the dog’s ability to chew her food that we needed to “save” rather than extract.  “How do we ‘save’ those teeth in a small dog?” I asked.  The answer… consultation with another vet clinic in Spring Lake that specializes in doggy dentistry to see if one or both teeth need a root canal.  Say what? A root canal? For a dog?  Yep.  Uh…. how much?  Oh, probably $1200-$2500, depending on how many teeth need work.  Gulp.

The x-rays were sent off to the doggy dentist, and a consultation appointment was set for early January.  I took Miss Ava for her appointment just a few days ago.  The verdict… only one molar needed a root canal (for now) and the procedure was completed in about three hours.  This time, my wallet was lightened by just under $1,400, and I mysteriously felt relieved that it was “only” $1,400.  I am pleased to report that Miss Ava is doing very well, acting like her usual self, and enjoying “mushy” food while her mouth heals.  Next week, we begin preventative tooth-brushing and anti-bacterial mouthwash to ward off more problems down the road, but we’ve been warned that Yorkies often have more and more dental problems as they age in spite of the best preventative measures.

Like most pets in most families, Miss Ava is very much a part of our family.  She joined our family when our daughter was still in high school and has been a joyful companion to all of us over the last four years.  Although we just spent a considerable sum of money on this little critter, I don’t regret it and I didn’t even consider not spending it when all of this came up.  I openly confess that Ava has grown on me as much as she has the rest of our family.

We routinely insure the most important things in our lives.  Our major assets such as cars, homes, and businesses are insured.  We insure our income from disability and premature death.  We insure our health through medical, dental, and vision insurance.  We insure our collections, keepsakes, and tools through scheduled property floaters and inland marine insurance.  Our pets?  Well, there is pet health insurance from a number of companies, some of whom have been around for years.  I’ve investigated pet health insurance policies for our pets in the past but I’ve never purchased it.  Why not?  Because risk retention made more sense given the array of exclusions and conditions written into these policies.  Many of the more serious and costly problems are often excluded.  Hip dysplasia is one such example, and the wide category known as “hereditary conditions” is another.  Pre-existing conditions?  Not covered.  Dental cleanings?  Not covered – except by a few much more expensive policies.  Doggy root canals?  Still checking on that.

Being a former underwriter and working in and around the insurance industry my entire career, I understand the reasons for these exclusions and conditions.  After all, until just a few years ago, many human health insurance policies did not cover pre-existing conditions.  To do so, invites adverse selection.   The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare) put those stone age days behind us.  Now we’re all one big happy exposure pool, pre-existing conditions and all.  Some body call the White House – they need to amend the ACA to extend its provisions to our dogs and cats.  (Wait – that’s a joke – please don’t call the White House – they just might take you seriously and screw up yet another insurance market.)

In conclusion, now that Ava’s mouth has been fixed up and the preventative measures begin next week, I am once again intrigued by exploring the latest offerings in the pet insurance market.  Parting ways with big bucks after a loss has a tendency to make anyone question their risk retention strategy.  I suspect that I will once again weigh the exclusions against the premiums and decide to continue retaining the health insurance risk for Miss Ava.  Nevertheless, I hold out hope that there is an economically sensible insurance option out there to handle the truly catastrophic risk (e.g., cancer) that might rob us of our little watchdog prematurely.  If Ava’s teeth continue to be a problem, I’ve told my daughter that I’m just going to open my wallet and have them replace all of Ava’s teeth with golden dentures.  Miss Ava will have an impressive grill when she flashes her smile.


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