Throughout his 35-year career in the employee benefit business Larry Brodsky has come across few opportunities to introduce a product to an employer that is both new and almost universally appreciated. The president of Lawrence S. Brodsky Agency in Palatine, Ill., found such a product about two years ago after a Web search for pet insurance introduced him to Pet Assure. Not an insurance program - but a discount plan for pet owners.

Originally looking for pet insurance as a diversifying product post-health reform, Brodsky's curiosity was piqued by this product "that none of our producers and none of the employers who we contacted knew anything about," he says.

Used to working primarily with small employers in the 2-50 employee range, Brodsky now finds that introducing the pet discount concept to prospects is gaining the firm entry to a whole new marketplace. "Fom the producer's standpoint, once you're in the door you can talk about anything," he says. "It's maybe the best door opener that we've ever had."


How it works

When calling on a local junior college recently, Brodsky recalls how the HR director started to tear up when he brought up the Pet Assure product because she had recently lost a pet. The fact that many people see their pets as children makes the product very appealing, says Rachel Ostreicher, marketing director for Pet Assure. "We know that people feel very strongly about their pets and about being able to provide them medical coverage," she says.

The original owner of Pet Assure established the business in 1995 after his Labrador retriever with hip dysplasia, a condition common to the breed, was denied pet insurance coverage. Charles Nebenzahl, now CEO, purchased the company about four years ago and business has been steadily growing since, he says. Currently Pet Assure works with just under 10% of the country's veterinarian offices and is offered by about 3,000 companies, mostly small employers.

For approximately $7-$9 a month in payroll deduction, participating employees are entitled to a 25% discount on veterinary care for all of the pets in their household - whether they have two or 10, says Nebenzahl.

Alison Capizzi, director of voluntary benefits for Florida at Gallagher Benefit Services, says an increased focus on voluntary benefits in the last couple of years led her to Pet Assure after continually hearing a desire from clients for a product to cover their pets. "People are getting gouged left and right from their core benefits and everything else," she says. "I think $9 a month is something they look at and say, 'This can really help me out.'"

The discount aspect is particularly favorable to the blue-collar employee base, says Capizzi. It also applies to other areas of pet care, including 5%-35% savings on products and supplies and 10%-35% savings on services such as boarding, grooming and training. There's also a pet recovery service that offers participants 24/7 assistance in finding a lost pet.

Pet Assure is commissionable on both new enrollment and renewal business, says Nebenzahl. And, as the product is not insurance, no P&C license is required. There is also no minimum enrollment number, but the product must be paid for through payroll deduction.


Product reach

Pet Assure often hears from brokers and HR/benefit directors alike, "what do I risk by offering this to employees?" The answer is not much, says Nebenzahl. "It's a low price point so people aren't going to get upset about it if something doesn't work out," he says. "And there's really very little that can't work out because there's no exclusions - it always works."

There is, however, a weakness to the program, Nebenzahl admits. Participants must take their pets to a participating vet, and "there are spots around the country that we still have weak coverage," he says.

It is a downside that producers at the Brodsky Agency come across on a regular basis, says Brodsky. "If they're looking for their veterinarian to be in the network, it's probably not going to be," he says.

However, Capizzi is encouraged that Pet Assure is continually adding vets to the network, and will target a particular area if a new client comes on board in that region: "They really seem to be popping up everywhere."

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