Does Insurance Cover Service Dogs?

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Owning a service dog can cost upwards of $50,000 – will your health insurance policy cover a portion of the cost?

Approximately 56.7 million people living in the U.S. have a disability. Every day, service animals help thousands of Americans live and travel independently, safely, and with dignity. These animals can cost many thousands of dollars, though, and rarely does health insurance cover service dogs.

How Much Do Service Dogs Cost?

Service dogs are a costly investment. Most service dog training organizations–especially those specializing in the newer uses of assistance dogs–charge anywhere from $15,000 to nearly $50,000 for the cost of raising and training your service dog. Due to their high cost, many people who want (and who could benefit from) being partnered with a service dog cannot afford to get one.

How Many People in the U.S. Rely on Service Dogs?

In spite of their steep cost, there are nearly 20,000 service dogs in the United States, according to American Humane Association demographic data. These dogs assist their human handlers in myriad ways and can be trained to perform a wide variety of functions: they act as eyes for people who are visually impaired, they assist people in wheelchairs with physical maneuvers, and some even warn their epileptic handlers of an impending seizure. More recent studies suggest that people with cognitive differences such as autism and ADHD may also benefit from being partnered with service dogs.

Service Dog vs. Therapy Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal: What’s The Difference?

Service dogs are more than mere pets. Service animals are also different than therapy dogs or emotional support animals, though people often confuse or conflate the two. Although service dogs and emotional support animals both provide some kind of assistance to their owners, service dogs differ from other therapy dogs in several important ways. Most importantly, service dogs enjoy distinct legal protections that emotional support animals and therapy dogs do not.

The Americans with Disabilities Act’s Definition of a ‘Service Animal’

Unlike emotional support dogs, service dogs must be certified and adhere to federal guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to…perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Notably, the ADA’s definition of ‘service animal’ is exclusive to dogs. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals under the ADA.

Service Dogs can be trained to serve in a wide variety of roles:

Does Health Insurance Cover Service Dogs?

As plenty of clinical studies evidence, owning a service dog can help people with disabilities live independently and improve their quality of life. But despite their proven benefit, standard medical insurance policies rarely, if ever, cover service animals. That service dogs are rarely covered by consumer health insurance is unfortunate, considering that service animals carry a high price tag; they are prohibitively expensive for most people to acquire and own.

Assistance Paying for Service Animals

Wonderful as service animals are, it can be costly to feed and care for them. While insurance plans rarely include coverage for owning a service animal, there are a limited number of resources and coverage options available to people who have service dogs.

Use a Flexible Spending Account (FSA)

Because service dogs provide a kind of medical assistance, most insurance plans that are paired with flexible spending accounts (FSAs) regard service animals as a ‘qualified expense.’ If your healthcare plan allows you to contribute to an FSA, you may be able to use pre-tax dollars to pay for the cost of owning a service animal.

For U.S. Military Vets: Veterinary Care Coverage

Currently, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) does not provide service dogs to veterans; however, the VA does cover the cost of veterinary care for veterans who have service or guide dogs.

VA service dog benefits are administered by the Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service and to receive veterinary benefits, veterans must acquire their service dog from an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF). And while the VA does cover the cost of service dogs’ veterinary care, veterans still need to pay out-of-pocket for other costs associated with dog ownership, such as grooming, food, and other petcare expenses.

Kerstin Ramus, who pairs veterans with dogs for Southeastern Guide Dogs, has seen first-hand how service dogs can transform a veteran’s outlook on life. “We provide service animals to people who can’t see or have seen too much,” she says. “Some of our [clients] are still on active duty.”

There is reason to believe that VA service dog benefits could become more comprehensive in the years ahead. Back in May 2017, Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis introduced legislation to fund a government-sponsored service dog program for veterans. The bill – known as The PAWS Act of 2017 – would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make grants to eligible organizations to provide service dogs to veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injuries. The bill is currently being reviewed by a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Service Dog Non-Profit Organizations

Scores of established nonprofit organizations in the U.S., including Canine Companions for Independence, 4 Paws for Ability, and Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, provide service dogs free of charge to those who need them. However, the wait time to acquire service animals through these organizations can be lengthy due to high demand and a limited supply of trained service dogs. People can spend years waiting for a dog.

Tax Breaks

Among the tax deductions you can take for a service dog are the costs of buying, training, and caring for the dog. You can also deduct expenses for food, grooming, and veterinary care, according to IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses. Note that tax deductions are allowed only for certified service dogs; they don’t apply to other types of therapy animals.

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Erica Block: Erica Block is an Editorial Fellow at HealthCare.com, where she gets to combine her interest in healthcare policy with her penchant for creating online content. When she isn't reading or writing, Erica can be found wandering around Brooklyn, playing softball, or listening to podcasts. She counts music, rescue dogs, and lumberjack sports among her greatest passions. Follow Erica on Twitter: @EricaDaleBlock

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