Close to 50 million Americans lack health insurance. President Obama's health care reform law is supposed to reduce that number, if Republicans don't kill it first.

Meanwhile, Capital Blue Cross, based in Harrisburg, has started insuring pets, under a program managed by a Philadelphia company, Petplan.

"We're excited. We think we're the first" Blue Cross affiliate to offer pet insurance, Stacy Balaban, Capital's senior director for strategic development, told me. She said employers welcomed the "voluntary benefit" because it cost them nothing - premiums for varying kinds of pets, deductibles and coverage levels are paid by plan members, and the policies are administered electronically by Petplan. Capital gets paid a commission on each policy.

Isn't it wasteful to insure pets, when humans go without? For a lot of Americans, "pets are family members," Balaban said. Some 500 Harrisburg-area residents jammed the company's "pet/people health fair" last weekend, collecting information on Petplan and other services.

Petplan is the project of a married couple, Chris and Natasha Ashton, who moved to Philadelphia from dog-crazy England as grad students at the Wharton School in 2001. They were investigating security business opportunities (Chris is a former Royal Marine officer) when their cat, Bodey, got sick and needed a kidney. "It cost us $5,000," Chris told me at his office in the former Scott Paper Co. headquarters near Philadelphia International Airport.

In Britain and Scandinavia, the Ashtons knew, millions of cats and dogs were insured. They reviewed pet insurance data from the United Kingdom. They licensed the Petplan brand from a British company owned by Allianz SE, the German insurer.

U.S. veterinarians resisted pet insurance, Chris Ashton says, "because they were afraid it would destroy their profession, as human health insurers have degraded the medical profession. But they have also realized with the current economic climate, people wouldn't be able to afford their services."

In 2006, through Penn, the Ashtons met Vernon and Shirley Hill, the Commerce Bank founders (they now operate Metro Bank in England) and major donors to Penn's school of veterinary medicine, along with Hill's banking client, Brian Tierney, the ad agency owner (and former Inquirer owner/publisher) who was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Wharton that year.

Hill added Petplan as an employee benefit at Commerce. Tierney offered marketing advice. Natasha says Travelocity, SC Johnson Wax and other employers followed Commerce, boosting Petplan's sales.

Chris cites industry estimates that over one million Americans now insure their pets, with written premiums approaching $350 million. He says his company accounts for about one-tenth of the total business, in competition with small firms in California and elsewhere. Petplan also publishes a magazine - called fetch! - that is thick with pet-supply advertising. The firm plans more merchandising.

Petplan's backers, besides local investors, include an arm of Holland's Van Lanschot banking family. Allianz is Petplan's underwriter. Nationwide and Aetna are also underwriting pet insurers, Ashton notes.

The industry seems ready for consolidation. Will Petplan be sold, or will it grow into a significant Philadelphia employer, beyond its current 50 workers?

Under control?

Demographers estimate the world's human population will top seven billion soon. SAP AG, the German business-software giant whose U.S. headquarters is in Newtown Square, was hired by the United Nations to help make that number real.

The result is www.7billionactions.org, built on SAP's Crystal Dashboard for the UN's Population Fund, which promotes birth control. The site shows pictures and tells brief stories of people around the world, and includes an odometer-like population clock that adds two or three digits every second as we approach seven billion humans.

An SAP group that includes engineers, managers and marketers built the site. The project's corporate sponsors also include Johnson & Johnson, which sells a lot of birth control.

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com and @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.