The standard of healthcare we are able to offer our pets in the developed world rivals the standard of healthcare we ourselves have access to. Options such as MRI, organ transplants, chemotherapy and even root canal therapy are utilized many times a day for pets in our world. The problem with having really high healthcare standards is that those standards are accompanied by really high price tags. All too often, my colleagues and I see pets that have issues that go untreated, preventative care that is incomplete or even pets that have to be put to sleep all because of poor finances. We hate that but we’re also not in the position to loan the money to our clients ourselves. Sometimes we do, in the form of letting a client make payments but our financial threshold for payment plans is really quite low. How then, are pet owners supposed to meet those expenses? The following is a list of ideas and recommendations I’ve developed through experience and stressed out brainstorming about trying to accommodate pet owner’s financial situations.
The best time to think about paying for your pet’s heath care is before you have a pet. I understand that we mere mortals don’t ever do this. In the off chance that one of the financial superheroes who will soon be our economic overlords might be reading this, allow me to offer them this piece of advice in the hopes they will look upon me with favor some day. If you are thinking about getting a pet, especially if you are planning on buying a purebred dog or cat from a breeder, try to put away three to four times the initial cost of the pet in a high yield savings account or even an online investment account like Vanguard or Betterment. After the initial account is set up, find out how much health insurance would cost for your new pet and transfer that amount of money into the account monthly. You’ll draw the money out of your account once yearly in good years and it will be there if you have an emergency or illness. If you never have to deal with an illness or an emergency, the money will have been well invested and you will get it back when you no longer need it. The same can not be said of insurance. Of course, if you have the money available to take this route you probably don’t need financial advice from a broke veterinarian.
For the rest of us there is pet health insurance. A quick internet search for pet insurance will yield dozens of viable options. The thing about pet insurance is that if things go well, it is not going to save you money on your pet’s healthcare. If your pet ends up with a few emergencies and a couple of sick visits over the course of a life time, you still aren’t likely to save money. Only when you get into the scary and stressful stuff that comes with taking care of our furry, feathered or scaly family members does the insurance start to pay off. By then, you’re not really thinking about the money. Trust me, I see it everyday. Insurance is great if you’ve been through a really bad illness with a previous pet and want the peace of mind that comes with insurance for your new pet or if you have a breed that is predisposed to health issues, even if it’s just allergies. That stuff gets expensive quickly.
Both of the options above require some planning. For many of us, the health care part of the equation comes into play long after we are smitten by puppy breath, kitten antics and the like. Most of our clients haven’t planned at all for an emergency situation or an illness and many haven’t even checked into the costs of routine preventative care before they bring a new pet into their family. And there is nothing wrong with that! Bringing a new pet into your life isn’t really a financial decision, if it was we would never do it. It’s a lifestyle decision and like many lifestyle decisions, cost is never the biggest factor. Still, things happen and we want to do our best for our pets when they aren’t feeling well or have an accident. Here are a few ideas about what to do if you’re already facing a medical expense with your pet.
Third party payment options are the number one way we typically deal with the expense issue. Right now the most common ones are third party lenders who will cover your bill today and you will pay them back over the next few months. Many of these plans offer interest free payments over a set period of time. Beware however, as the interest rate outside of this time period is often astronomical. I’ve seen an APR as high as 30%! That’s crazy! Still, it makes a huge difference when we can sort of put the money aside for a little bit and focus on what is medically best for your pet.
Recently a new model of the third party payment option has been offered to pet owners and veterinary clinics. Starting in 2013, a service called vetbilling.com began a third party payment plan for veterinary patients that doesn’t have the high interest rates. Instead you as the pet owner, pay an enrollment fee and a small administrative fee is attached to each payment. You pay the company and they make a payment to your veterinarian. It takes a lot of the pressure off the veterinarian’s office. I don’t expect veterinarians to offer this to every client, we can’t afford to have revenue trickling in, but for those unforeseen emergencies it will be a real life saver. Sometimes literally.
Why can’t my veterinarian just offer me a payment plan? It’s simple and complicated at the same time. The easy answer is; we can’t afford to. Current industry averages in veterinary medicine put our payroll expenses at roughly 40% of gross revenue and inventory/supply expenses at about 30% of gross revenue. That means that 7 out of every 10 dollars we earn goes right back into providing services for our clients and their pets. We can’t make payments on our staff salaries and most medical supply companies do not finance. Especially when we’re ordering from them biweekly in many cases. So if we offered payment plans and they were utilized by even a quarter of our clients with a short repayment period of three months, we wouldn’t have the cash flow necessary to make payroll or order supplies within the first month. We’d either have to borrow money to stay in business, go out of business or stop offering payment plans.
Finally, when facing larger than you can afford medical expenses for a pet you can always compromise. Your veterinarian’s job is to offer you the best care that they can possibly provide. Every single time you come to them with a problem. It is up to you to determine whether or not that level of care is worth it to you. The best way to do that is to have an open and honest conversation about the situation and how you feel about it. Simply saying the words, “I can’t afford to do it like that” will go a long way at opening the door to other options. Just keep in mind that when we start to cut down a plan to save money, we are also affecting the outcome to a certain degree. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I recently had a conversation with my doctor about an outpatient procedure I’m planning for this Summer. My insurance has a ridiculously high deductible and it actually ends up being cheaper for me to pay cash for most things because of the discount and save the insurance for big scary stuff. I asked my doctor if paying cash changed things at all. Turns out it does. Now I don’t have to go to the hospital, see an anesthesiologist and deal with recovery. Instead, we’ll do it in his office under a local anesthetic. There are many situations in veterinary medicine that are also like that but we can’t just assume you want the cheapest or bare bones method. You have to tell us and we have to warn you about the consequences. For example, if I have an anaphylactic reaction to local anesthesia during the procedure this Summer, I would be far less likely to die in the hospital than I will in the doctor’s office. Your veterinarian will be the best one to let you know in each specific case how making changes to a plan will affect the expected outcome.
Having pets in your life is always rewarding. It enriches your day and even helps with your mental and physical well being. There are going to be times where pet ownership is stressful and even downright scary. Don’t let money be the scariest part of the equation and don’t let it come between you and your pet.
Thanks for reading.