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Pet HMOs: Your pet needs surgery, dental work? No problem

October 15, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Dana Haddad Steindecker likes to believe there’s no limit when it comes to medical care for her 5-year-old Maltese, Kelbi.

Of course, there’s also no limit to the cost. That’s why Steindecker joined a new pet HMO _ a membership program that offers discounts for pet health care.

Now, the 25-year-old real-estate agent says she doesn’t think twice before taking her dog in for routine checkups, vaccinations _ even flea baths.

When Kelbi recently needed dentistry, including several extractions, Steindecker made the appointment without delay. Without the plan, ``I might have waited a few months,″ says Steindecker, who saved $140 on the $560 doggie dental bill.

Steindecker signed up with Pet Assure, which offers a 25 percent discount on veterinary services for dogs, cats, birds and reptiles. Membership costs $99 a year for the first pet, $79 for each additional pet. In return, the plan has no deductibles, pre-existing conditions, increased premiums for old or sick pets, or benefit limits.

``We like to describe it as a super-HMO or HMO-plus,″ says Jay Bloom, Pet Assure’s founder and chief executive officer.

He says he got the idea after his golden retriever needed a $3,000 hip replacement that wasn’t covered under the insurance policy he held on the dog.

``I submitted the bill to my insurance company and instead of reimbursing me, they said (the condition) was hereditary,″ Bloom says. ``I wanted to see what else wasn’t covered. ... There were several thousand exclusions.″

Clients of Pet Assure, based in Dover, N.J., get their discount on items ranging from surgery to pet food purchased at certain stores. Clients also get up to 50 percent off from participating groomers, trainers, boarding houses, dog walkers, cat sitters, therapists _ even a pet lawyer.

The discounts come from the providers themselves. Pet Assure returns 50 percent of its gross membership sales to the veterinarians, while other participants simply get free advertising.

The average dog or cat owner spends about $1,200 a year on food and services for their pets, according to the Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Most will spend $575 on medical care before making a decision to end treatment or put down an ailing animal, according to a recent survey by DVM Newsmagazine, a veterinary monthly.

``I have homeowner’s insurance. Does it pay for itself? No, but that’s not why I have it,″ says Jeffrey Delotte, the pet attorney who is a Pet Assure client as well as provider. ``It’s protection.″

Delotte says he has handled two matters for Pet Assure clients: one involving a sick dog bought from a pet store, the other a dog-bite case.

Pet Assure, which started in June 1996, has grown faster than the expectations of Bloom, a former financial officer with Chase Manhattan Bank, or his wife, Carolyn Farkas, a co-owner.

The program is available at 150 animal hospitals in 13 states, although most of them are in New York. Bloom’s goal is to get 3,000 veterinary hospitals in the program by early next year.

The company recently reached a deal with Petco Animal stores to sell Pet Assure memberships. It also sells memberships to corporations as part of their benefits plans, and even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers the program to new clients.

The Bank of New York offers Pet Assure as a premium incentive or giveaway to customers and employees. And Bloom says Pet Assure has signed an international franchise agreement with the Japanese medical company Kawa Corp.

Dr. Phillip Raclyn, who runs three veterinary hospitals in New York City, says what he gives in discounts he more than makes up for in volume. He has seen many new Pet Assure clients.

``If I wasn’t a vet,″ he says, ``I’d be a member.″

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