ANNAPOLIS – Steve Robertson faced a $3,000 hospital bill after losing his 8-year-old Rottweiler, Duke, to cancer – a steep bill he didn’t care to repeat.
When he added Duke Jr. to his family, Robertson, of Salisbury, turned to pet insurance.
More Marylanders like Robertson are taking advantage of optional employee benefits for pets – a growing trend nationwide.
Robertson said the company where he is human resources director, Harvard Manufacturing, is experimenting with the benefit and seven of its 250 employees purchased the plan. As word spreads about the offer, Robertson said he believes enrollment will grow.
“The human bond with pets is a lot stronger today,” said Bill Gorman, group sales manager for Veterinary Pet Insurance. The company’s sales increased tenfold since 1998 and it is projecting $1 billion in sales by 2010.
Metropolitan Washington, D.C., is the third-largest area VPI covers, behind California and New York. Of the 62 million dogs and 69 million cats in the United States, two million of them live in Maryland.
“There are so many professional, younger people into their pets,” said Gorman.
Individuals may purchase pet insurance through companies directly, but a growing trend has been in employers offering the benefit to employees.
Companies receive a 5 percent discount when they enroll in the corporate benefits plan, and enrollees may choose between two different plans.
The price is based on several factors, including species, home state, age of the pet and the purchased plan. Insurance for a healthy dog, 1-to-4-years-old, averages $15 per month.
The Navy Federal Credit Union, with offices in Annapolis, Bethesda, Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Indian Head and Suitland, offers pet insurance to its 4,300 employees.
“We were looking to add personal choice benefits and pet insurance was more popular than long-term-care insurance,” said Nancy Astorga, manager of compensation and benefits.
Astorga enrolled through the credit union for her 4-year-old pug, Brandy.
“I wanted to have the piece of mind,” Astorga said. “The decision to have medical services shouldn’t be based on a financial situation.”
VPI targets larger corporations like the Navy Federal Credit Union because of the wider base market. More than 700 organizations including American Express, Procter and Gamble, AT&T and Chipotle restaurants offer the benefit.
“We believe we should have benefits that support all families, including those with pets,” said Chris Arnold, director of “hoopla, hype and ballyhoo” for Chipotle, which offers the partial-pay pet insurance benefit to its 6,000 employees.
“The cost of veterinary services has increased . . . any person who really cares about their pet gets pet insurance,” said Gorman.
Americans spent $19 billion on veterinary care and medicine – $11.5 billion on dogs, $6.5 billion on cats and $140 million on birds – an increase of $8 billion in 5 years, according to a 2002 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
VPI covers a variety of animals including geckos, chinchillas, iguanas, goats, potbellied pigs, hedgehogs, opossums and sugar gliders.
“We cover pretty much everything except for horses. . . . I knew someone that insured pet rats,” said Gorman.
PetCare Insurance Programs, a Canadian-based provider, also offers voluntary corporate benefits to companies including PETCO and Canadian Gap Inc.
“Three years ago, corporate benefits were not on the radar,” said Sue Howard, corporate manager of PetCare.
PetCare does not focus primarily on corporate benefits, but said as the economy recovers, so will the number of employers offering the benefit.
“Pet insurance offsets traditional bias of the traditional nuclear family,” said Mark Warren, PetCare chief executive officer, “it is for those families who have foregone having a family, or do not have the traditional family.”