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Is it the Veterinarian’s Responsibility to Provide Affordable Health Care?

By Jessica Vogelsang    October 10, 2016 at 11:00AM / (8) comments


I worked in an emergency hospital for several years, and while you might think the stress of dealing with critically ill and injured pets would be the worst part, it wasn’t—not by a long shot. The worst part was hearing this from an angry owner: “You’re only in this for the money.” We hear it every day, and it never stings any less.

 

One case in particular sticks out: AJ, a one year old pup who had been vomiting for several days came to see me. We are always concerned about foreign bodies in young dogs, and I thought I might have felt something when I palpated his abdomen. I recommended x-rays, which the owner said they didn’t have money to do; they just wanted some nausea medications.

 

I understood their limitations, but I was still incredibly nervous about sending them home with the knowledge that AJ might have something life threatening in his abdomen and would prefer that they save their money for surgery if necessary.

 

As an employee, I could no more give away services than a Macy’s employee could give you a pair of shoes. To do so would be stealing, and could get me fired. But for my own peace of mind, I took an x-ray anyway to make sure AJ didn’t have a ball in there. I spoke to the practice manager and explained the situation, offering to have the cost taken out of my paycheck (she found a way to cover it from our angel fund).

 

Secure in the knowledge that AJ would probably be OK with a little rest, I went back in to discuss his discharge with the owners. Before I could open my mouth, the owner looked up from his iPhone and laid into me: “If you cared you would have done x-rays for free! It doesn’t cost you anything! You’re a terrible vet and you’re only in it for the money!”

 

And when I told him what we had done, all he had to say was, “Well that’s exactly what you should have done.” Then he left.

 

All services cost something. The technician who took AJ’s x-ray draws a salary, as do I for the time I spent interpreting it. The machine itself costs money to maintain, as does the software system where we store the images. Were we to donate services to all who wanted and needed it, we would be out of business in a matter of weeks. AJ’s owner, who was holding a $700 piece of electronics in his hand, made the choice not to make his pet’s care a priority but was happy to leave me and the other wonderful clients who contributed to our angel fund to pay the bill instead. He never did thank us.

 

In that particular emergency hospital I would often spend over half my time during a shift calling charities on behalf of clients, trying to help them fund lifesaving care, and taking me away from a whole lot of other sick pets who needed my help. I wish I could say that was an uncommon occurrence but it happens all the time, and it’s a major contributor to veterinary burnout. It broke my heart to not be able to perform tests or procedures due to cost, and I cried many nights.

 

I do understand that veterinary care is expensive, oftentimes prohibitively so. Those high costs reflect an increasing demand for high-tech diagnostics and care rivalling that of human hospitals—though I would challenge anyone who thinks our fees are out of control in comparison to that of human hospitals, where a single exam in the ER can run you thousands of dollars.

 

I understand that the cost of care is a problem for many people. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s an issue that should be left to individual veterinarians to figure out, nor should they be in the habit of floating loans to clients who 90% of the time never pay them back. On the other hand, I think there are many ways our profession, along with owners, can work together to make veterinary care more affordable, and as an industry, I’d like to see us be proactive in helping you.

 

From an industry standpoint, I support the many veterinarians who are trying to make affordable care options available by partnering with financial services who can help provide payment plans for clients. It is simply not feasible for individual practices to hope clients will pay them back, but we are seeing a number of businesses that can help make that happen. While we can’t be in the business of both providing and funding pet care, continuing to explore these partnerships can result in increased access to care benefits for everyone.

 

As an owner, please understand that you have a proactive role to play as well. Pet insurance is quite often a literal lifesaver. In times of catastrophic injury or illness it can be the difference between life and euthanasia, and there are hundreds of insurance options out there.

 

We also rely on you to convey your constraints to us so we can work with you. We all understand that you just might not have hundreds of dollars available at a moment’s notice. While I cannot change what our costs are, I promise I will do my best to make the most of what we have. That might mean pursuing diagnostics in stages, or trying a course of medication instead. At the end of the day, we are all trying to do our best by you.

 

If I wanted to be wealthy, there are about 500 other jobs I could have chosen that make more sense than this one. I still wouldn’t change it for the world, and I will always work as hard as I can to make lives better for pets and the people who love them.

 

 

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Image via Shutterstock 

Comments  8

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  • Vets can help
    10/11/2016 03:57pm

    My old vet who owned his practice would always help me out with the expenses of foreseen visits by waiving a fee here and there, only charging for service he really thought necessary and that was all I would ask for.
    On the other hand when I moved my closest vet was a constant rip off. I thought my dog might have swallowed foreign object so I took her to the closest vet. They charged me $30 for the visit where they wanted to run blood test and take an x-ray despite not feeling anything, but their bigger concern was that she might have an ear infection because her ears were dirty! They wanted to give her an injection and topical antibiotics. I drove 2 hours back to my old vet who told be she was fine and just cleaned her ears out.
    I will pay whatever I can for my pets health, but not for some vets to pad their coffers at my expense.

  • 10/11/2016 03:59pm

    Now I've learned to keep cost low by going to low cost clinics for vaccinations and scheduling an appointment with my GOOD vet when need be even though it is a long drive.

  • Not uncommon problem
    10/14/2016 12:23am

    Good article, but reality is some vets do try to dollar and dime you to death. I use to be a vet tech and saw some practices that constantly pushed the vets and front desk to sell, sell, sell! I also worked for some who did the best the could to keep costs down if a client was having a difficult time with the expense. Seems anymore it is more of the sell, sell, sell vets with fancy buildings who are in the majority. I want a vet who cares and knows animals, but I'm not planning on financing his or or new Mercedes. When some vets charge $3000 on the low end for a c-section up to $10,000, but then another charges $800 and does an excellent job, it doesn't make sense. A spay anymore can cost the owner more than the price paid for the puppy anymore. Common sense and fair pricing is all I as a client ask for. The practices I know who keep cost reasonable have thriving practices and happy clients who refer others to them. Just be fair.

  • 10/14/2016 06:29pm

    Wow! $800 for a routine spay? In June we had our Scotch Collie puppy spayed. The cost was $60 at the vet clinic in Houston, MO. It would have been less had she weighed less than 25 pounds, and more if she weighed over 50 pounds. Even then, it would never cost more than $100.

    We are fortunate to have many excellent veterinarians in our area. Some are seasoned veterans while others are starting out fresh out of school. Even towns with a population of 2,000-3,000 people have one or two vets to chose from.

    There are many large cattle operations here, and lots of horses, goats, sheep, and even Llama in addition to cats and dogs. Some of the vets treat livestock, and some treat only family pets but, regardless, all are treated with care and with respect for their families.

  • Keep to the basics
    10/16/2016 10:37pm

    A vet runs a business, much like a plumber or electrician. And all three will charge based upon the income level of the areas in which they work.

    Our vet is great and caring, but also expensive. We bring our dog in for an annual vaccination and they charge us for a routine exam in addition to the vaccine. Yet the routine exam consists of only listening to our dog's heart for about 3 seconds, and looking into his ears. That's $65 right there.

    We purchased our dog from a reputable breeder who coached us on vets, vaccinations and pest control. Her coaching was "Do the absolute minimum". She's been breeding dogs for over 20 years and only treats for heart worms and rabies. And rabies vaccination is done only because it is required by state law. Thus far she never lost a dog or experienced any pests, such as fleas or ticks.

    We took her advice to heart and made sure our vet understood our position.
    If she recommends anything outside of the basics, we politely say "No."

  • Predatory Vets
    10/17/2016 02:00am

    For the mot part, veterinarians are predatory business owners. Just try taking your pet in for a routine vaccination, and their dumb-dumb front desk girlies are well-trained to try to up-sell every possible service. When Eartha Kitty had a bad reaction to her vaccinations, Banfield offered to charge me over $800 for Benadryl. I bolted and took my poor baby with me. I rubbed some OTC liquid Benadryl on her gums a few times and she came out of it just fine. When a roommate was ready to move to assisted living, he was allowed to bring his cat with him on the condition that he get Slide's vaccination up-to-date. The private vet he went to tried to bamboozle him into getting thousands of dollars of "tests" run on a perfectly healthy indoor cat. He was lucky I went with him to run interference with the "sales team" at this unscrupulous practice. This is the standard...not the exception.

  • A different perspective
    10/19/2016 05:08pm

    The comments here are interesting, to say the least. I'm a veterinarian and small animal practice owner in a rural area in the mid-Atlantic region FWIW. Is the vet in it for the money? Yeah, just like you go to your job for the money. Even those that work in non-profit clinics get paid for their time. How would you feel if your boss decided to pay you half of what they owed you because they didn't want to finance your Mercedes/Fusion/Sierra? What type of car or home or college education are you willing to help your vet afford? Chances are he/she has the same loan burden as your doctor or dentist, a much higher overhead cost than your average physician or dentist (does your GP doctor perform xrays, lab work, surgeries, dental procedures, and routine services all in the same office?), and is charging much less for comparable services (not talking about your co-pay or insurance deductible). Do yourself a favor next time you are in the hospital, urgent care, or your doctor's office, ask for an itemized bill. You'll be surprised. There are a variety of clinic types and fees, charging based on what that clinic pays to keep the doors open. Your average employed vet can make much more money for the education they've acquired in some other career, and your average clinic owner does only slightly better, depending on real estate costs, benefits, etc. As for selling, most of us "sell" services and products that our clients aren't aware of that could provide our patients a benefit - remember, the average pet owner is not aware of scientific advances and new products as they come to market. If we don't offer these, who will? Chances are, if your "good" vet is only charging you a fraction of what another vet has recommended, they probably haven't taken the time to perform a full exam or don't care to take the time to discuss your pet's overall health, maybe they're using older equipment, or they're "reading you" and assuming that you only want X,Y, or Z, and that's all they're going to do for you. Are there people/vets that try to take advantage? Sure - just like contractors, car salesmen, and fast-food workers ("would you like a drink or fries with that? How many of the commentators here impugn the motives of the McDonald cashier or the restaurant owner?) As a pet-owner, you only see one side of the equation. Why might someone charge only $800 for a surgery that costs 3-5 times that somewhere else? Maybe they low-cost clinic isn't providing comprehensive monitoring of that patient during anesthesia, maybe pain medication and IV fluids aren't used or monitored, maybe they are using good sterile technique, maybe they don't have an assistant designated to follow that patient through surgery and anesthesia recovery to insure the best outcome, maybe they're using antique anesthetic agents - none of this matters to you when all you're thinking about is the cost. But if your pet dies under anesthesia, or develops a post-operative infection, and these things weren't done, you might see the value in the additional costs. What it comes down to is that in every service and product industry, there are levels of quality. People are going to want different levels of service or quality. Don't assume that someone charging more is out to take advantage of you.

  • Contentious topic
    10/20/2016 01:55pm

    This topic always gets to me. I'm a former vet tech and so am painfully aware of the cost of vet care. I'm also aware of the painfully low salary I was paid as a vet tech, someone who has to know how to run lab tests, check in patients, bill, book appointments, monitor patients, take x-rays, assist the doctor, prep and tech surgery...the list goes on and on. Very few people go into pet care for the salary and even as an experienced tech, it wasn't something I personally could live on long-term. Vets are not faring much better, and many come out of school with a huge debt burden that they will struggle to pay off for their entire careers.

    Your pet is your responsibility, and it is on you to make decisions based on your finances. Do not expect the clinic to take on the mantle of the cost of your pet's health. Not paying bills is literally cheating a small business of payment, just as it would be if you didn't pay at a local restaurant or ignored the plumber's bill. It means people in your community suffer to make ends meet at the end of the month.

    Yes, veterinary health care costs can be high, but they are nowhere near human health costs. I've seen pet hospitalizations and surgeries run $2-3,000 for a several day stay. In comparison, my surgery and ICU stay of 5 nights a few years back came to $102,000 pre insurance. There is no comparison and frankly, I question how vets can operate at all charging what they do and still covering all their bills, salaries and overall costs.


 
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