Service dogs belonging to American military veterans are now covered by comprehensive private health insurance under a new arrangement by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
A contract between the VA and the company Trupanion provides payment for care by licensed veterinarians of working service and guide dogs that have been approved by the VA as medically necessary for VA-enrolled veterans, according to the agency.
For now, that amounts to about 400 dogs, VA spokeswoman Genevieve Billia said by email. “The number will fluctuate as new dogs are enrolled, or as the animals die or retire,” Billia said.
The agreement with the insurer, which took effect Jan. 27, is known as an “Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity” contract, which means the cost of the contract to the government varies depending on the number of dogs being covered. Billia said the maximum allotted by the government for the contract is $5.6 million over two years. Essentially, the government is paying an insurance premium for each enrolled dog, Trupanion spokeswoman Britta Gidican said.
The insurance provides 100 percent payment for all wellness and sick care for eligible dogs. Services and products not covered are: elective surgery; non-prescription medications and other over-the-counter items, including flea control; non-prescription food, including dietary supplements and weight-loss diets; non-sedated teeth cleaning; boarding that is not medically necessary; grooming and nail trimming.
The dogs are eligible as long as they are working. “When the dog reaches an age or condition such that it can no longer provide the services for which it is trained, then the dog is retired from service” and its government-paid coverage is suspended, according to Billia.
Eligible dogs are given identification tags showing their respective policy numbers, and their owners receive identification cards, as well, Gidican said. Veterinarians seeing a covered patient may be paid immediately by calling the insurance company to obtain a credit-card payment. Gidican said Trupanion is making staff available 24 hours a day every day to provide the service.
Veterinarians also may opt to install a computer application in order to be paid electronically, or submit bills by email or fax, which typically would be paid within 48 hours, Gidican said.
The program “empowers and encourages veterinarians to simply do what is absolutely the best for the dog, no matter the cost,” Gidican said. “Veterinarians can always go with Plan A now when treating and caring for veteran-owned service dogs in this program.”
The program involves no restrictions on pricing, such as is common in health insurance for people. “We do not determine the price of the medical care,” Gidican said “We don’t negotiate it; we don’t have benefit-scheduling.”
She added: “We really want veterinarians to know this isn’t a joke. Their bills are really being paid by us, promise.”
Gidican said the company is hopeful no practitioner would attempt to take advantage of the program. “We have to put some things into place to make sure we’re not getting scammed,” she acknowledged. “We’ll work it out. We just haven’t quite thought of that at all.”
She added, “We are predicting an uptick in veterinary visits simply because all of the services will be paid for now.”
While private insurance coverage for veterans’ service dogs is new, government-paid medical coverage for the dogs is not. The VA has paid their veterinary bills since 1961, administering the program in-house, agency spokeswoman Billia said.
The provision of commercial insurance for veterinary care of veterans’ service dogs and guide dogs was written in a federal regulation published in September 2012.
Billia said the VA recognizes guide dogs for blindness and vision impairments; and service dogs for deafness and mobility disorders. The insurance coverage also extends to dogs acquired through a VA Office of Research contract for participation in a study on the use of service dogs by veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The agency does not recognize animals other than dogs as service animals. Pets and comfort or companion animals are not eligible for the insurance program, nor are retired military working dogs.
Trupanion was one of three private insurance companies to compete for the contract, the VA said. The privately held company was founded in Canada in 1999, and expanded to the United States in 2007 with offices in Seattle. Gidicam said the company became licensed to insure in all 50 states in 2012.