The financial headache/heartache conundrum in vet medicine
After this week’s post on my freebie services, I started to feel unduly praised for the work I undertook on a dying cat’s behalf. I know that none of you willing to read this blog would fail to yield for a roadside feral cat half-kill or even a semi-squished suffering snake. So why praise the vet for what should come naturally?
I bring this up in an effort to be fair. After blogging about taking on cases others would not, I feel as if I’d caught a touchdown pass after trampling my team members. Re-reading the post in question, it’s clear to me that I presented my position self-servingly—to the detriment of my respected colleagues.
So it’s at this point that I feel compelled to step in and defend every vet that's ever declined services due to a client's limited funds. Not that we all deserve an impassioned defense; but our position at least merits your understanding.
Personally, I find it impossible to turn away a dying animal I could easily save. How could I spend my precious time prying tree frogs from the jaws of my sliding glass doors only to refuse to aid someone's beloved pet in comparable distress?
Yet there are plenty of times when I decline to offer aid: When it’s not a life-threatening emergency, when I surmise that I’m being taken advantage of and/or when I slink out the back door before anyone else might make me an offer I can’t refuse, I engage in the same sins of omission we all commit at some point in our careers.
Truth is, every vet has to draw a line somewhere if they want to be treated fairly, avert abuse from an irresponsible contingent of pet owners and get home to their families. Yet it’s somehow different should we spy a dog dodging traffic, see a cat laboring to breathe after an unsuccessful game of suburban Frogger, or catch our own dog dragging a baby opossum into the house. Our hearts go out to these animals immediately. We drop everything, eager to help and proud to know we have a special ability to do so. So why the disconnect between these two categories of needy creatures?
After pondering this dilemma carefully, it’s clear to me that there’s something about getting finances involved that changes the dynamics of “care” (in a global sense of the word). It affects all of us in this profession, as I expect it does those in human health fields. When there’s an owner, an agent, a “responsible” party to be addressed or held liable, everything changes on a dime. It’s not all on me anymore…it’s on them.
We all entered into our respective fields through a sense of duty to our fellow creatures or our fellow man. Many of us expected a certain degree of financial compensation and a commensurate level of respect, too. Without the latter forms of remuneration, it’s true, a great many of us might have chosen other fields. That, however, doesn’t explain why we didn’t go into law or banking in the first place. We all still harbor a squishy spot in our hearts for others’ health and well-being.
Too often (perhaps especially in Miami), we see the Mercedes key in a “needy” client’s grasp and though we know everyone can get into financial trouble (even a luxury car owner), we justifiably feel taken for a ride. It's not our job to find ways to finance others’ emergencies. It’s our job to extend our services in return for a reasonable price because we provide valuable assistance.
I’ve spent countless hours of my time on cases whose owners promised to pay, praised my work, begged my forgiveness for being unable to pay up front…and subsequently absconded on their bills. So you know, this situation bests the grateful and compliant recipient ten to one. It’s no wonder vets try to slip out the back door when they see a money case coming their way. Because it’s not just about the money…it’s also about the lack of respect we have to face down each time someone fails to pay.
I know it’s hard for you all to imagine, pet-centric and responsible as you are, but most people are happy to avoid payment on a “luxury” item if they can get away with it. Sure, I long for a society where people believe their pets are the greatest gift to their lives, but that’s not the realm most of our veterinary clients inhabit. You know it’s true, judging from your responses to so many of my animal welfare-oriented posts.
And yet it seems cruel, inhumane, unfair, even, for a vet to decline to yield in favor of a needy animal—even when an irresponsible owner is attached (perhaps especially when it’s clear the so-called owner is a dud). But, to me, it seems rather more unfair for society to feel the same way about how we fund our child healthcare initiatives—and yet that’s an ever-present political reality in the US.
I realize this post rambles, but it’s clear that healthcare administration is nothing if not as squishy as the hearts that sought to make it their life’s goal. We want to help. We’re available to get it done. Yet universal access to care for pets, as for humans, is no given. To expect a veterinarian to effectively donate their services and give away the drugs she’s paid for is little different than to expect that every human doc work at a free clinic a percentage of their time—and hand out dollar bills, while they’re at it.
Vets want to please, we want to be respected, we want to be paid but, ultimately, we want to be in a position that meets all these wants and allows us to heal pets, too. But we can’t always get everything we want in life. We may just have to resign ourselves to knowing that a certain percentage of the time we’ll be taken for that ride. In the end, I guess it’s a small price to pay for having the opportunity to do what we do.