No vet wants to provide anything less than the best possible treatment but when a client is unable to pay for your services, how much charity can your business afford? By Susi Banks
There are various strategies veterinarians use to balance out their fee structure when providing low or no-cost treatment to ‘battler’ pet owners. This ranges from educating clients on the costs of pet ownership and encouraging them to take out pet insurance to treating homeless people’s pets for free.
A problem faced by most practices is clients who simply can’t afford treatment for their pet. Do you just stick to your fee schedule and refer them to the RSPCA or other charities? Or do you provide free or below-cost treatments and try to balance it out by charging well-to-do clients the maximum fee?
Dr Sam Kovac is the founder of Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic in Sydney with locations in two different socio-economic areas—one in the Sydney’s inner-west suburb of St Peters and the other in the more affluent eastern suburb of Bellevue Hill.
“We never compromise on quality to reduce our fees. If a client can’t afford a procedure, we don’t cut corners, but we do offer a no-interest payment plan in select cases,” says Dr Kovac. “Some clients don’t appreciate the benefits of providing the most up-to-date services, and for these clients, we recommend they become clients of a clinic that offers lower quality care and a lower fee.”
By running her mobile Veterinary Ophthalmology Services, Dr Melissa Meehan gets to work at the RSPCA in Burwood, Victoria, as well as in more affluent parts of Melbourne. She offers a middle-tier service at the RSPCA for people who can’t afford a specialist eye veterinarian.
Dr Meehan regularly needs to explain to clients that animal surgeries cost as much as human surgeries, but they are not subsidised by the government. “People usually understand the true value of the procedure when they realise that Medicare covers a large proportion of human surgery costs and that is why veterinary surgery seems to be so expensive,” says Dr Meehan.
“We never compromise on quality to reduce our fees. If a client can’t afford a procedure, we don’t cut corners but we do offer a no-interest payment plan in select cases.”—Dr Sam Kovac, Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic
Unfortunately, she has seen many distressing cases of animals that have been surrendered to the RSPCA. “There was a lovely little dog that had lived with a very painful eye condition for 18 months. If it was a human, it would have been complaining of chronic migraines. Unfortunately, dogs don’t make it so obvious.”
Why pet insurance works
Bessie Hassan, a money expert at comparison site Finder, says that when the company recently surveyed 2033 Australians, they found the average dog owner is prepared to spend up to $4128 in one visit at the vet practice while cat owners are willing to pay $2137 in a visit.
“Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this kind of money in an emergency,” says Hassan. “This is where pet insurance can come into play. However, roughly one in five pet owners have pet insurance.”
Dr Kovac encourages his clients to invest in pet insurance. “We drill this at every point we can—at the first puppy visit, in puppy party, at puppy school and during consultations,” he says.
Hope for the homeless
“There is a group in society, the homeless, whose bond with their companion animal is literally life-saving,” says Dr Kovac. “Often their pet is the only thing they have to live for. We have decided to safeguard this bond and through Project HoPe [which stands for Homeless Pets], we provide no-cost veterinary surgery and medicine.
“As this charitable fund is strictly limited to people living rough, they have received some criticism. Some believe that people on Centrelink benefits or on low incomes should be entitled to access this fund but if we were to allow that, the funds would dwindle to nothing and the people for whom this fund was set up—the homeless—would be as bad off as before.”
Working as a vet in remote East Arnhem Land, Dr Sue Samuelsson saw the challenges facing remote communities and decided to do something about it. She started i-Vet so those stranded by distance, disability or illness are able to access the care their animals desperately need.
“There is a group in society, the homeless, whose bond with their companion animal is life-saving.” —Dr Sam Kovac, Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic
From these small beginnings, i-Vet now offers consultations to pet owners in remote Aboriginal and mining communities and to those who cannot afford to bring their pets into a traditional veterinary clinic.
Although not a budget veterinary practice, i-Vet online consultations cost considerably less than a vet house-call. Dr Samuelsson is able to treat many more patients than she would if she had to see them in person.
Many of i-Vet’s customers are pet owners who live so far from traditional veterinary centres, they already have a high level of proactive care and treatment for their pets. The service allows these owners to get advice and assistance from veterinarians so they do not have to go it alone.
“Often it’s an owner trying to work out just how sick is their pet,” says Dr Samuelsson. “Additionally, do they need to get to charter a flight or battle the floodwaters to get to an in-person vet?”
A respect for animals is often at the core of why people become vets. In a situation where care is going to be denied due to financial concerns, the vet is faced with a moral issue. They have to juggle being a hard-nosed businessperson with their legitimate concerns for the animal’s health.
Whether they adopt a two-tiered payment system, work free on certain days, refer to cheaper animal care centres or just give away their services, there is no easy answer. It remains one of the most difficult aspects of being a vet working in animal health.