Up a tree over dead cat's health plan

Stuck

STUCK: Woo Lee and his wife, Sarah Harper, didn’t know that, even after Pete the cat died, they would have to continue making payments on his health plan to Banfield, the Pet Hospital. (Courtesy of Sarah Harper)

"My pet was put to sleep due to a terminal illness, and Banfield said I would have to continue to pay the premiums until the end of the contract," one person posted on complaintsboard.com. "Death was not a good reason to discontinue paying the wellness premium."

"SAME THING HERE!" another person replied. "Our puppy got really sick and could not fight the sickness off and passed away the same month we got the wellness plan. They would not let us cancel, or even change the plan to our other dog. We are still paying insurance for a dog we don't have!!!"

Banfield's Johnson said the company was aware of the online complaints.

"It's unfortunate that those are out there," she said. "We have 2 million pets on wellness plans. We take good care of them."

Harper said she received little sympathy when she first contacted Banfield after Pete's death.

"I told them my cat had died and they said I couldn't terminate the contract," she recalled. "I said that my cat was dead and didn't need a wellness plan anymore. They said only that I'd signed a legally binding contract."

At my request, Harper called Banfield back the other day and asked more specifically about why she was still being charged. This time, she was informed that the monthly fees were covering more than $350 in veterinary bills run up during Pete's illness.

"Now I see it's just a payment plan, like buying a car," Harper told me. "That's not how it was originally presented."

She and other pet owners might want to look into the real deal. The country's largest provider of pet coverage is Veterinary Pet Insurance, based in Brea. The company insures about 460,000 pets.

Brian Iannessa, a spokesman for VPI, said policies typically cost $25 to $30 a month -- about the same as a comprehensive Banfield wellness plan -- and reimbursed expenses for most tests and treatments.

If your pet dies, the coverage ends. Period.

"You would notify us that your pet is deceased, and the policy would be terminated a day later," Iannessa said.

Also, unlike Banfield's wellness plans, VPI and similar providers are regulated by the California Department of Insurance.

I related to Iannessa what happened to Harper and the payments she's still making for a dead cat.

There was a brief silence as he considered the situation.

"I can see how that would seem heartless in some pet owners' eyes," Iannessa replied.

Contract terms notwithstanding, it's hard to see it otherwise.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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