Cat owner at vet's front desk
I’m a veterinarian first and foremost, but along life’s many devious paths, I also eked out a degree that says I know something about business. Since I’m often asked to render my opinion on the subject, I’ve been thinking about the many imperfections inherent to paying for pet care.

Though it’s not all doom and gloom, there are four things I find troubling about our current payment system.

1. There’s a gap between the care owners want and what may be affordable. A race is underway in veterinary medicine. It’s between owner demand for state-of-the-art services and veterinary supply of new advances to meet the need. Trouble is, there’s a huge gap between what owners know is available and what most can afford.

For example, most pet owners know that canine lymphoma is a treatable cancer. Many, however, aren’t prepared to shoulder hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars a month for six months or more of treatment. It’s hard to know your vet can do something for your pet when it’s beyond your reach. Many owners never even considered that vet care could be as pricey as such treatments are.

 2. People aren’t used to paying for health care up front. “Payment is expected when services are rendered” is an odd concept for many of us steeped in the American health care industry’s third-party payment system.

Veterinarians often hear: “Why so picky about getting paid up front? My doctor sends me a bill. Why can’t you?”

This question is particularly problematic when owners are paying emergency hospitals and specialty facilities for big-ticket items like board-certified-level surgery. Steep pricing — however fair — can bring out the worst feelings in stressed-out pet owners, especially when they’re coupled with strict payment policies that are ultimately — if justifiably — designed to protect animal hospitals more than they are pet owners. After all, we have to pay our rent, electricity and drug bills immediately, too.

In the end, many pet owners have a hard time squaring high prices and strict payment policies with the people they’ve always believed had their pets’ best interests in mind. Which explains why “They’re all about the money. They don’t care about pets” is a refrain that resonates with many pet owners and frustrates well-intentioned veterinarians.

If we really cared about money more than animals, why would we accept well under half the income our human-doc counterparts earn for the same amounts of rigorous schooling and crushing debt?

3. Sticker shock occurs when owners aren’t aware of the current economic pressures in veterinary medicine. Veterinarians struggle financially relative to their counterparts in human medicine. Vet visits are down, student debt load is way up, and veterinary unemployment is at an all-time high, among other examples of economic softening within the profession.

Service prices are up across all health care professions, largely because we share most of the same suppliers. So when veterinary prices go up, consider that it’s not because we’re maxing out our margins, but rather because we’re dealing with the rising prices of gauze sponges, syringes and generic meds, among others.

The cost of veterinary drugs, in particular, is on the ascendance. That means that your veterinarian may be getting unfairly blamed for the sticker shock you feel at the reception desk. To be sure, at our hospital the prices of drugs have climbed drastically compared to only modest increases in service pricing.  

When pet owners don’t know what their veterinarians are up against, it’s hard for them to have faith that they’re being treated fairly.

4. Few payment options exist to help owners handle big vet bills. It’s crucial that pet owners understand the challenges they could face, financially speaking, before they get into trouble. Most won’t feel like empathizing with our profession’s economic woes when they’re faced with an enormous estimate for veterinary services. That’s because, short of offering lower-quality options, there’s not a whole lot we can do to help pets who need things like X-rays, lab work, chemo, radiation, surgery, etc.

There is, however, a lot we can do to help our clients ahead of time — before their pets get injured or ill. Pet insurance is ubiquitous and affordable. If you know you can’t pay for your pet’s health care in the event of the unthinkable, then there’s no excuse not to get it. None. Do it today. Do it now.

Though the news may seem dire, it’s not all bad. After all, we’re in this pickle in large part because we’re good at preventing diseases and saving lives. And since in recent years we’ve done a much better job of pairing needy pets with people who will pay for their care, we’re on our way to making things better for pets. Much better. For all pets.

What we still need to strive for, however, is an expanded understanding of how the entire industry serves pets and what pet owners can do to become as responsible as possible. Though I believe this knowledge is, to a large extent, the veterinarian’s job to impart, it’s yours to run with.

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