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Veterinary care needs to be more affordable

Veterinary care needs to be more affordable

During his 2010 New York gubernatorial campaign, Jimmy McMillan attracted considerable attention with his Rent Is Too Damn High Party. His platform consisted of a concern that New York City rental prices had exceeded the ability of many people to afford even remotely decent lodging.

I fear that we are on the verge of a Jimmy McMillan moment in veterinary medicine because the legitimate costs of veterinary services have become “too damn high.”

While the collective drive to offer the highest quality of medical care to animals is certainly admirable and consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath, the cost of this high quality of medical care may be driving some pet owners to forgo necessary treatments, to consider euthanasia as a viable alternative to treatment and to view the veterinary profession as a bunch of money-grubbing crooks.

My wife runs a primary care veterinary clinic. She does spays, neuters and other relatively minor surgeries, but typically she refers to a local emergency/specialty hospital for more demanding surgeries and other care. The referral hospital is a state-of-the-art facility with excellent doctors, caring technical staff and all the best equipment. It is absolutely a wonderful medical establishment, but we routinely have pet owners who refuse to go there because it is widely known to be very expensive. We regularly hear the request, “Can’t you do the treatment (or surgery) here?”

This situation creates an ethical dilemma for the primary care veterinarian. Does the veterinarian refuse to do the treatment or surgery because it is potentially outside the bounds of his or her competence? Or does the veterinarian give it a try because the animal has no real alternative? Clearly, there is no acceptable answer to this dilemma.

One Saturday afternoon, our office received a call from an owner whose dog had been diagnosed with a closed pyometra earlier in the week at another veterinary hospital. Subsequent to receiving the diagnosis, the dog’s condition worsened, and the owner was seeking immediate resolution of the problem. The veterinarian who made the diagnosis was unavailable that Saturday afternoon, and the owner called several emergency clinics in our area. The quoted prices ranged from $1,200 to $1,600. When he said he couldn’t afford that much, one veterinary office allegedly offered to euthanize the dog for him. The specialty hospital to which we typically refer gave the man an estimate of $3,200 for the surgery.

We ended up doing emergency surgery on the dog on Saturday night for just under $600. We probably lost money on the surgery because of the staff overtime, and everyone lost their Saturday night off, but the dog was not euthanized.

We can pat ourselves on the back for doing the right thing that Saturday night, but our doing the right thing only highlights the problem. Veterinary care costs too much! A customer shouldn’t be faced with choosing between an extremely expensive surgery and euthanasia. Similarly, the primary care veterinarian and her staff shouldn’t be forced to give up what little time they get away from work because an owner can’t afford high-priced emergency care, nor should they charge less than a reasonable price for their services. There must be an alternative.

No middle-class family can be expected to absorb an unanticipated $3,200 surgery for their family dog, nor should they be forced to decide whether to kill the dog because of the cost of treatment.

We need to identify decent pet health insurance providers and encourage pet owners to purchase those plans. Whether the owner chooses catastrophic coverage only or a broader wellness/preventive care policy is up to the client.

I suggest that a veterinary business journal like Today’s Veterinary Business review and evaluate available pet insurance plans. The veterinarian might then be better prepared to suggest forms of pet insurance to owners.

Dr. Spreat is a research psychologist who assists his wife, Susan Spreat, DVM, at Imlaystown Veterinary Clinic in Allentown, Pennsylvania.