February 10, 2008 – By JULIE BICK
SERIOUS illness can take a financial toll on families without health insurance – even when the patient is the family pet.
“My bulldog has been treated for skin infections, paw problems and now she’s on antibiotics for a cold,” said Kelly Fennelly, a personal trainer in Kirkland, Wash., who spends about $350 a year on veterinary care. Now she is planning to buy pet health insurance, in case her dog, Maggie, becomes really sick or is hurt in an accident.
Enter the pet insurance sales agent, who tries to find a health policy that fits an animal’s (and its owner’s) needs.
The specialty is small: there are less than 600,000 insured pets. That is less than 1 percent of the more than 160 million cats and dogs in the United States, according to Chris Ashton, who recently studied the market on his way to starting Petplan USA, a pet insurance company based in Philadelphia.
Fewer than 20 companies now sell pet insurance in the United States, he said, and there are fewer than 500 pet insurance agents. Mr. Ashton’s venture has only 11 employees, but he plans to expand to 100 in the next three years.
The field has been small because products have been too restrictive, too expensive or have not met consumers’ needs, according to John Volk, who studies pet-related spending for Brakke Consulting of Dallas. He said that many people “have never heard of pet health insurance.”
But that is likely to change. “The industry is poised for rapid growth,” Mr. Volk said. Veterinary technology is becoming more advanced, more available and more expensive, he said, leading to a greater need for insurance, especially in emergencies. At the same time, many pets are being treated more like members of the family.
A typical pet insurance policy costs $300 a year, but can vary based on the age of the pet, species, level of coverage and other factors.
Both large companies and smaller start-ups are beginning to experiment with different offerings to customers, according to Mr. Volk. For example, Trupanion, based in Seattle, sells lifetime pet health insurance only for puppies and kittens, so pre-existing conditions are not a factor. The company plans to increase the number of employees who can sell insurance policies to 110 from 22 over the next three years. Nestle Purina began offering pet health insurance in Canada last summer, and plans to enter the United States market this spring.
Veterinary Pet Insurance, based in Brea, Calif., is the largest company in the business, with 400 employees and $150 million in sales of insurance premiums each year.
Like other types of insurance, pet health insurance is state-regulated, and only licensed agents can sell policies. Licensing requirements vary among states, and employers typically pay for training. National companies serving customers via the Web have agents who are licensed in all 50 states.
Insurers look for various qualities in a potential sales agent. Lorin Young, vice president for sales and marketing at Veterinary Pet Insurance, says he seeks employees who can communicate clearly and build rapport over the phone.
At Trupanion, the same agents who write the policies also process the claims, so they are expected to have two to five years of experience in a veterinary clinic, along with some animal health training. “They need to talk to policyholders about their pet’s medical conditions and understand doctors’ reports,” said Darryl Rawlings, Trupanion’s founder and chief executive.
Kevin Patcheak, a salesman for Veterinary Pet Insurance, says he likes providing help when people call seeking a way to avoid the big medical costs that can occur over the lifetime of their pets.
On the other hand, he said, “the hardest part of the job is when someone calls and the pet already has an illness or a broken leg, and they want help paying the bill.” As with many insurance policies, pre-existing conditions are not covered by pet health insurance.
Pet insurance sales agents make $30,000 to $100,000 a year, according to company representatives. Pay is a mix of base salary and commission, depending on the employer. “I was surprised, but you can actually support a family on the salary,” said Mr. Patcheak, who has a master’s degree in education.
Potential customers have usually done some research on the Web, or received a recommendation or brochure from their veterinarian, and are calling for more information. Pet insurance agents typically work in these call centers.
THERE are other options for those who are interested in the business. Field representatives visit trade shows, conferences, veterinary offices and pet stores to raise awareness of product offerings.
Adam Cooney, 22, joined Petplan USA to become a pet insurance agent last year when he graduated from the Wharton School’s undergraduate business program at the University of Pennsylvania. He said he chose the job in order to join an entrepreneurial company in a growing industry.
“We just came back from a convention and there was so much energy and growth,” he said. “You don’t always have to go to Wall Street to find an exciting job.”
Read the full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/jobs/10starts.html