Vet and client

It’s got to be the worst feeling in the world: The only thing standing between you and your pet is a health care crisis that demands you spend more money than you can afford to treat his life-threatening illness.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions when it comes to financial tragedy. This dilemma has played itself out countless times over the course of my career in veterinary medicine — and each time it feels just as demoralizing as it did the first time.

Given the high-stress nature of this uncomfortable fact of veterinary life, is it any wonder so many vets are on the lookout for new ways to help pet owners pay for their animals’ health care expenses?

Although we’d ideally like to find ways for pet owners to understand that a) paying for basic preventive care (annual examinations, periodic vaccinations, weight management, dentistry, etc.) is the smartest way to save big on veterinary care and b) saving money for emergencies is necessary for those who consider their pets family, the reality is that most of us — veterinarians included — don’t always do what we know we should.

This means that many of us will eventually find ourselves in emergency situations we’re powerless to effectively manage. (By the way, there’s nothing like having been there yourself to help cure you from ever doing the same thing to your family again.)

So what should you (or a friend or family member) do if you end up in the worst-case scenario described above?

Do you bounce from vet hospital to vet hospital looking for a veterinarian who will perform a necessary procedure for the least amount of money? Sometimes that works. But price-shopping ICU services doesn’t exactly reflect the direction veterinary medicine is headed. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find nonspecialists to perform many life-saving procedures. Besides, shopping for price vs. quality is not where you want to be at midnight after falling off a balcony. That’s not how we treat family — that is, unless we have no choice.

In the interest of giving you choices, many veterinarians have worked hard to make it easier for you to pay bills. Here are five novel ways we’re helping address the problem.

Vet Care Credit Cards. Veterinary hospitals like the one I work for offer CareCredit and other veterinary-only credit cards that allow pet owners to secure a credit line (usually interest free for a lengthy introductory period) right when they need it. Sure, it means you need to have reasonable credit, but it works for a significant segment of the population. In my experience, it’s saved a whole lot of lives.

Pet Insurance. Walk into any veterinary hospital and you’re likely to see pet insurance placards, posters and brochures strewn about. Why not? I’d like nothing more than to see more pet owners accept the fact that if they don’t get pet insurance one day, they may find themselves deciding between taking a major hit on plastic or euthanizing their pets.

Group Health Savings Plans. Some vet hospitals have joined pet health savings group programs. By offering discounts to pet-owning group members, they’re theoretically able to attract a more prepared, more knowledgeable clientele. Pet Assure is the most commonly available plan. For the record, I’ve never worked at a hospital that offered this, so I’m not sure how it works in the real world.

In-House Insurance and Wellness Plans. Veterinary hospitals sometimes offer insurance-style programs for their clients, such as a full-year puppy or kitten “package” you pay for in advance in exchange for as many vet visits as you may need in that year. Major chains also offer similar wellness plans that cover things like dental visits, vaccines and other basic health care needs. Some even have more comprehensive accident and illness policies.

In-House Payment Plans. In this economy, you’d think that veterinary hospitals would be less likely to extend clients credit if their backside is on the line for the balance. Truth is, many hospitals offer plenty of credit — but only to clients we know well. What else are we going to do? We certainly can’t make you put your pet to sleep for something fixable, especially when we’ve been treating her for 10 years and you’ve always paid for services with no complaints.

We’re all in the same boat. We all feel the squeeze. And some feel it more than others, which is why we should all work together on this one. After all, none of us wants a front-row seat when it comes to vet tragedies like economic euthanasia — not when creative accounting can offer a lifeline.

What do you think? Have you used an inventive way to pay for your own pet’s medical bills?