GHLIT ends endorsement of Pets Best while severing ties with Aetna

Deal dies quietly as GHLIT exits pet health insurance arena

Published: January 14, 2011
By Jennifer Fiala

The Group Health and Life Insurance Trust’s (GHLIT) endorsement of Pets Best Insurance has fizzled with none of the fanfare that accompanied the union’s controversial beginnings in July 2008.

On Jan. 7, GHLIT Chief Executive Officer Libby Wallace implied that the Trust — an indemnity arm of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) — severed ties with the private pet insurance company. She made the announcement during a speech in Chicago before the AVMA House of Delegates.

While Wallace never publicly mentioned Pets Best, she announced that the GHLIT ended its relationship with Aetna Signature Administrators in favor of a new underwriter, United HealthCare. The GHLIT's endorsement of Pets Best evolved, in large part, because the insurance offerings of both entities were backed by Aetna.

Dr. Jack Stephens, the founder of Pets Best, has refused to comment on the demise of his company’s relationship with the GHLIT. Pets Best still employs Aetna Insurance Company of Connecticut as its underwriter.

Following Wallace’s report to House delegates, she confirmed to the VIN News Service that the endorsement of Pets Best ended, though she downplayed the GHLIT’s connection to the pet health insurance company. Several times, she stated: “Our relationship really was ever only with Aetna.”

That characterization contradicts earlier statements made to the VIN News Service as well as original promotional materials outlining GHLIT’s endorsement of Pets Best. The formal announcement came during the AVMA’s annual convention in 2008 in New Orleans, accompanied by a massive marketing campaign that included signage signifying that GHLIT officials had put their confidence in Pets Best.

That failed to sit well with many in veterinary medicine, especially competitors in the pet health insurance arena who questioned the ethics surrounding the GHLIT’s “exclusive” support of Pets Best. To many, the deal translated to the AVMA’s endorsement of a private insurance carrier.

Despite such criticisms, Wallace defended the union, stating that the goal was to put the GHLIT name behind a pet insurance company so that veterinarians might believe in it. Many veterinarians steer clear of promoting pet health insurance options due to fears that the system might evolve into the managed healthcare debacle that’s plagued human medicine.

But the GHLIT’s mission to “educate” veterinarians on pet health insurance was tarnished by news that the GHLIT had promised to exclusively promote Pets Best in exchange for royalties on premiums — an arrangement defended by GHLIT officials who stated the monies earned would pay for staff to support the program on the Trust’s end and cover marketing expenses. Rumors also circulated that the arrangement was unscrupulous, considering Wallace is the daughter of former AVMA Executive Vice President Dr. Bruce Little, who was a Pets Best board member and shareholder.

Wallace has repeatedly rejected any notion that her family connections influenced the Pets Best-GHLIT arrangement.

Still, to many, it appeared as though the GHLIT and the AVMA, by extension, were in bed with a private insurance carrier. That raised the hackles of veterinarians, especially dues-paying AVMA members.

Debate erupted on Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. Nearly a year after the endorsement deal was announced, VIN polled its members on the topic. The result: Seventy percent of the survey’s 1,700 DVM respondents reported feeling “very uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” with the GHLIT-Pets Best arrangement.

AVMA and GHLIT officials have publicly explained that although the membership organization ultimately governs GHLIT, the two groups operate autonomously. The AVMA does not benefit monetarily from the GHLIT and the membership body does not endorse specific pet insurance companies. 

Still, little could be done to mend the negative image many had of the GHLIT-Pets Best endorsement deal — especially when veterinarians began expressing discontent with Pets Best services.

In December 2009, it was revealed that Stephens and the GHLIT were having problems with Aetna’s role in governing how Pets Best claims were handled. At the time, Wallace shied away from conjecture that the GHLIT might dump its relationship with Pets Best when the partnership deal was scheduled to end in mid-2011.

“We entered into this arrangement cautiously, and we'll be doing a critical review of our contract. This has been a learning experience for all parties,” Wallace stated.

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