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Canine Journal is pleased to provide our readers with this exclusive interview with Pets Best Insurance Founder and CEO Jack Stephens. In 1981, Jack had to euthanize a dog (he was a vet at the time) because his owner couldn’t afford treatment. Shortly after, the owner and her child saw Jack in a local store. When the woman asked her child if she remembered Dr. Stephens, she said, “Yes, he’s the one who killed our dog.” Determined to stop economic euthanasia of pets, Jack founded the first U.S. pet insurance company the following year.
A former practicing veterinarian, Stephens is a pet enthusiast who shares his home with multiple dogs, two cats and several horses. Jack’s driving passion to increase the quality of pet care encouraged him to found Pets Best Insurance. Jack has written and published numerous articles about pet health insurance, was a contributing author for a leading veterinary trade magazine, and is a vocal advocate for the positive effects pets have on our lives. For all things pet related, Jack is the guru that people turn to. If he doesn’t know the answer, he personally knows the person who does. His leadership and experience make him Pets Best’s very own Captain Jack.
1. Can you provide some background on why and how Pets Best started and your role in its foundation?
After I retired from VPI pet insurance after 24 years as its founder and CEO, I knew there was much more that I wanted to do for pet owners in changing pet health insurance. As a veterinarian and pet owner myself, with nine dogs, I wanted to make pet insurance better. My goal was to take the many lessons I learned and transform pet health insurance. With that in mind, I decided to start Pets Best Insurance. The name Pets Best was designed to remind me and our entire team that we wanted to strive every day to be the best for pets.
2. What was your greatest reason for starting this new company?
With Pets Best, I wanted to change the way pet health insurance paid claims to pet owners. I designed the Pets Best policy to reimburse a straight percentage of the veterinary costs, after the deductible. This would allow pet owners to plan better financially, knowing exactly what portion of their costs would be covered. I chose to not use a “fixed” benefit schedule or a usual, customary and reasonable (UCR) schedule for reimbursement, as they often pay considerably less than the actual cost of the veterinary treatment. This was the cornerstone to one of many changes Pets Best brought to the pet insurance industry. This reimbursement model has since been replicated by most of the other pet insurers.
When I started the pet health insurance industry in the United States in 1982, it was with the intent to provide a safe, effective and regulated method of helping pet owners afford unexpected accidents and illnesses for their pets. As a veterinarian, all too often I was requested to put pets to sleep because of financial limitations of their owners, even when the pet’s health could be restored. I hated doing that. One day, I had a defining moment when I ran into a client and her daughter in the grocery store. A few weeks prior, they had brought their dog Buffy into my practice. Ultimately, the mother decided she couldn’t afford the dog’s treatment and requested euthanasia. When the mother asked her daughter if she remembered me, the daughter replied that I was the one who had killed their dog. That day, I resolved to find a better solution to help save pets instead of euthanasia occurring because the treatment cost was too high.
I spent two years researching and contacting regular insurance companies about insuring pets for their veterinary expenses. I never thought I would leave veterinary practice and start an entirely new industry that would save millions of pets.
3. What do you feel has been the biggest change in the industry since the company was founded?
There is certainly more competition, which I think is good for pet owners. It provides more options and inspires change. Veterinary care has reached diagnostic and treatment options that mirror the best in human health care. Pets are living longer and being treated successfully for many more conditions than previously available. Obviously, better care increases the cost of care as more pet owners seek the best medicine for their pet, such as MRIs, ultrasounds and cancer treatments. However, it presents a challenge for pet insurers in setting rates and providing the best of coverage to meet an increasing demand for care as we recognize the importance of pets in our lives.
4. Thinking of your consumers, what pet insurance (and/or pet health) concerns keep you up at night?
I am still amazed at how many pet owners think nothing serious will happen to their pets and are not prepared financially for their pets’ accidents and illnesses. Veterinarians today are still putting pets to sleep, and pets are still not receiving care because of financial constraints. Their owners are simply unprepared financially and do not realize how costly that care can be. All too often, pet owners faced with costly care have to borrow from relatives, use credit cards with high interest rates or sacrifice their pets because they do not have the funds, when it could be easily prevented with affordable monthly premiums for pet health insurance.
5. How have the changes in pet health, economic stability and family dynamics among pet owners changed the landscape of Pets Best’s offering?
We have continually expanded our coverage, benefits and our insurance offerings. For instance, we recently received all 50 state approvals for our Cancer Only, Feline Illness Only and Annual Deductible plans.
Cats Get Sick and Injured Too
We knew that our feline pets were not being insured at anywhere near the rate of dogs, yet cat owners love their pets just as much. What we found out from surveying pet owners was that cat owners had the perception that not much happens to cats medically, which of course is not true. Ask any veterinarian. A second finding was that most cat owners had more than one cat, which made the monthly cost higher to insure multiple cats. And finally, we found that more than half of dog owners had a cat. We took that information and scoured our database, finding the most costly and chronic conditions that affect cats, especially indoor cats, and designed coverage for only those conditions. Our goal is to insure more cats and provide their owners with financial help when they need it.
Cancer Risks Are the Biggest Concern for Pet Parents
Our Cancer Only coverage addressed the No. 1 concern for pet owners: cancer. We talked to many pet owners and found that they were by far the most concerned about the high cost of treating cancer in their pets. Some pet owners wanted more coverage for cancer, while others wanted only cancer coverage for their pets.
6. What about your company’s offering makes you stand out from your competitors?
Most of the pet insurers offer good products. I would recommend avoiding any that pay on a benefit or UCR schedule, which can cause unpleasant financial surprises when there is a claim. Pets Best reimburses 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent or 100 percent of the veterinary bill. We have a great variety of plans that will fit any budget or need, with a large variety of deductible options ($0, $50, $100, $200, $500 and $1,000). We also offer wellness plans that have annul benefits for such things as vaccines, spaying/neutering, teeth cleaning, parasite tests and more that are nearly double in benefits as compared to the annual cost.
Pets Best is best in class with its turnaround time for paying claims. 92 percent of claims are paid in two days or less. We offer electronic filing of claims and direct deposit of claims reimbursements to streamline the time for claim payments. We pride ourselves on our service and having knowledgeable pet owners on staff to assist our policyholders with questions.
We also recently added 24/7 Claim Pre-Approval for our policyholders. With around-the-clock access to our amazing Pets Best team members, our customers know exactly what is covered, which allows them to select the best possible treatment options for their pets. This is especially helpful in emergency situations.
7. The pet insurance industry has become a crowded, dynamic world to operate in. What new & exciting things can we expect to see over the next decade from the industry & Pets Best?
Pet owners will benefit from the competitive landscape with more services, benefits and options for their pets. I think others will follow Pets Best on our claim pre-approval process, as they did with our reimbursement percentage and direct deposit of claim payments. I love being innovative in ways that help pets, because pets give so much to us physiologically, psychologically and socially. Pets are actually good for our health and well being, as demonstrated with scientific studies that measure the positive changes we have in our bodies when we are with our pets. They deserve the best in care, and insurance is a method that works.
We also know that service will be the defining issue for many as the industry becomes crowded and more difficult to determine value with confusing and multiple choices.
8. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Accidents and illnesses can happen to your pet. Even indoor pets get sick, develop cancer or have accidents. Don’t think it will not happen to your pet. Be prepared financially in some manner, with savings, open credit card limits or with pet health insurance.