While most veterinarians are quite confident about their medical judgment, making decisions about insurance protection sometimes seems more difficult. Disability insurance, in particular, is an often overlooked or misunderstood protection.
Health insurance is generally a given—virtually everyone uses health care several times during their life. Life insurance is also fairly straightforward, and individuals with dependents generally understand the need for it.
But what about disability insurance?
What are the odds of needing disability insurance? When and how do the benefits begin? What if the insured can work but only a reduced schedule? What if the insured cannot practice veterinary medicine but is able to work in another profession? These are all excellent questions for an AVMA Group Health & Life Insurance Trust representative.
"I tell veterinarians every day I don't know how to spay a cat; they shouldn't have to know all about insurance," said AVMA GHLIT representative Wes Hentges. "I have great regard for what veterinarians do. I hope they see me as an adviser."
Hentges strongly recommends that every veterinarian maintain an open dialogue with his or her agent.
Dr. Robert A. Dietl, president of the Minnesota VMA and former AVMA Executive Board member, agrees. "It all boils down to communication," Dr. Dietl said. "Talk to the AVMA GHLIT. Let them know what's happening. Remember the GHLIT is your advocate."
Dr. Dietl speaks from personal experience. He spent nearly two months in 2004 recuperating from back surgery and was able to draw disability benefits during that time. As he gradually regained his health, Dr. Dietl was able to work only part time at first return. His AVMA GHLIT disability claims examiner, Ralph Motto, reminded Dr. Dietl that, even though he was able to work, he was still eligible for residual benefits, which help make up the difference when you cannot draw your full salary.
"I could see a vet going back to work on a part-time basis after a disability and not even thinking to let the GHLIT know they were not working full time," Dr. Dietl said.
Understanding how one's benefits work is where the AVMA GHLIT can be helpful. In Dr. Dietl's case, he was guided through the paperwork the insurance company required to approve his claim for residual benefits.
"But I never felt like I was dealing with the insurance company," Dr. Dietl recalled. "I was dealing with the AVMA GHLIT. They were my advocate, helping me get the right paperwork together."
As a former chair of the AVMA Insurance Liaison Committee, Dr. Dietl might be better informed than the typical AVMA member. Still, he thinks not only is it important for members to understand how the benefits work, but also why members need them.
Dr. Dietl is of the opinion that disability insurance is one of the most important kinds of coverage a young professional can own. "I think it's more important than life insurance," he explained. "If I were to die, I would not be a liability to my family. They would miss me, but I'd be gone. If I were disabled, they would have to look after me. It may be a grim way of saying it, but you'll only use your life insurance once. Your disability insurance could be used a number of times."
Statistics support Dr. Dietl's contention. According to 2004 figures released by America's Health Insurance Plans and Society of Actuaries, the risk of experiencing a disability lasting 90 days or longer during one's working years is surprisingly high. At age 35, the risk is 21 percent for men and 27 percent for women; at 45, the risk is 18 percent for men and 22 percent for women; by age 55, the risk is 14 percent for men and 15 percent for women.
Dr. Corrina Lester, a 1995 graduate of Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is a prime example of these statistics. Her health problems began when she was just 32. Dr. Lester had purchased disability insurance right out of school because she was concerned about being injured by an animal in her practice. The thought of being diagnosed with a disabling disease at a young age was not on her mind, however.
Two years of unexplained but tolerable pain escalated in the fall of 2004 with the onset of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety attacks. Dr. Lester was diagnosed with endometriosis and fibromyalgia the following year. She was forced to give up the practice she had built with a partner, but the insurance did bring some peace of mind.
"In my case, if I had not had it, I would have gone downhill much faster," Dr. Lester said. "It helped ease the financial stress ... that was one more thing I didn't have to worry about."
Dr. Lester and her partner also carried Professional Overhead Expense insurance, which enabled her partner to keep the business open during her absence and eventually buy her out. Professional Overhead Expense insurance is designed to cover a practice owner's business expenses to help keep the practice open when a veterinarian is unable to work because of a covered disability.
"My advice is to regularly review your coverage to make sure it's up to date," Dr. Lester advised. "Our POE insurance was very helpful, but now I wish we would have had a little bit more."
Dr. Lester credits her AVMA GHLIT representative, Frank Allen, for helping her make the right decisions. "Making the investment in the insurance programs Frank recommended was one of the best financial decisions I have made to date," she said.
To summarize, understand your needs to make wise insurance decisions. Understand the insurance protection you own. Rely on the Trust and its representatives for insurance expertise. Remember that needs change, so review your protection on a regular basis.
"Veterinarians helping veterinarians" is how Dr. Dietl summarized the AVMA GHLIT advantage.
For more information on the GHLIT disability plans—including exclusions, limitations, rates, eligibility, and renewal provisions, call the Trust office at (800) 621-6360.