A version of this article originally appeared in Maryland Dog Magazine in 2016.
Suzanne Cannon knows how hard it is to choose between finances and your pet’s health. Almost ten years ago, her dog developed a severe case of pancreatitis, requiring $4,000 of emergency treatment and inpatient hospitalization.
Despite having pet insurance, Cannon – who was going through a divorce and temporarily working part-time – had no way to pay her bill up front and then wait for weeks to be reimbursed. And third-party financing through CareCredit® wasn’t an option due to her personal circumstances – she was
“credit invisible” without the financial support of her soon-to-be ex-husband.
“I didn’t have $4,000 immediately available to me – many people don’t have that kind of money just lying around. I was financially able and willing to make monthly payments, but since I wasn’t approved for Care Credit® (the only option offered by the emergency vet), that wasn’t going to happen, unfortunately. I remember wondering what other responsible pet parents did when finances and credit were limited. I hate hearing stories about economic euthanasia, especially when there are many pet owners like myself who are willing and able to make payments, despite what their credit report might say.”
Cannon hoped she could give more options to other pet owners. Along with her partner, Tony Ferraro, she helped launch VetBilling® in early 2014. Ferraro owns Electronic Billing & Customer Support, a Maryland-based electronic payment processing and accounts receivable management firm he founded in 1986. Leveraging the company’s expertise in payments and collections, Ferraro and Cannon set out to fill a gap in the veterinary industry. Their VetBilling® business model allows pet owners to spread veterinary costs over time by making interest-free installment payments, while enabling vets to reliably collect those payments using Electronic Billing’s secure and fully developed payment management infrastructure.
Cannon says paying for vet care is a hot topic for vets and their clients – for different reasons. Pet owners, who find vet costs overwhelming at times, are strongly in favor of more payment options. Vets, on the other hand, hesitate to offer payments, with good reason. “Vets absolutely want to provide the best care for their patients. I haven’t talked to a single vet who isn’t sensitive to the issue of cost vs. care,” says Cannon. “But they also run a business and need to protect themselves. They don’t want to get burned by clients who don’t pay, and they don’t want the hassle of billing. It can be an administrative nightmare.”
Cannon and Ferraro created a system with the intention of addressing the needs and concerns of both parties. The benefit to the pet owner — having extra time to pay an expensive bill — reduces stress and means a sick pet gets immediate treatment without cost getting in the way.
For the veterinarian, worries about getting paid are significantly reduced because VetBilling sets up automatic drafts from the veterinary client’s checking, savings or credit card account. The vet doesn’t have to mail invoices, track payments, or make uncomfortable collection calls.
VetBilling’s payment compliance rate (the percentage of payment plans successfully paid in full and on time) averages around 95% – which means the system works the way Suzanne and her partner hoped it would.
VetBilling® also has a credit risk assessment feature built into its web application, called the Credit Score Recommendation (CSR.) The CSR helps veterinary practices determine the degree of risk involved in offering a payment plan. The vet enters basic client data such as name, address, and social security number, and instantly receives a credit letter grade for the client, along with recommendations for a down payment amount and the ideal length of payback period. According to Ferraro, “we designed the feature to execute a ‘soft’ credit pull, meaning it doesn’t show on the client’s credit report or affect their credit score.”
VetBilling® won’t deny a payment plan to a client based on their credit grade. “The vet decides whether to offer a payment plan, not us,” says Cannon. “If a trustworthy client has fallen on hard times, and the vet wants to offer a payment plan, we won’t turn them down. The CSR is simply meant to be a guideline so the vet can make an informed decision. Our assumption is that the vet knows the client and the specific medical case, and is therefore in a better position to decide whether to extend a payment plan to the client standing in front of them. We don’t interfere with their judgment – we will process and manage any payment plan that is sent to us.”
VetBilling® payment plans, as well as other budgeting options like pre-payment plans and pet savings accounts, are offered by select veterinary hospitals across the United States, as well as in U.S. territories like Guam. A list of participating veterinarians can be found by clicking on the “Participating Vets” tab on the VetBilling® website. New vets are added weekly, so for the most up-to-date information, pet owners should contact VetBilling® by phone, at 800-766-1918.
For Cannon and Ferraro, who have two dogs and a horse of their own, what’s most rewarding is knowing their efforts are making a difference in the lives of pets and their people, as well as reducing stress levels for veterinarians. “Our very first success story – nearly 10 years ago now – came from a retired woman on a fixed monthly income whose 5 year old dog needed emergency surgery for a pyometra,” shares Cannon. “She was turned away by one vet because she didn’t qualify for third-party financing.”
“In desperation she went to another veterinary hospital hoping to be helped, since she was able to put 50% down that day. She just didni’t have enought to cover the full cost immediately. Unknown to her, the hospital had just partnered with VetBilling, so they set her up on a 3 month payment plan. Not only was her dog’s life saved, but she also paid off her balance early – in fact, within 2 weeks! Really, she just needed someone to believe in her. I have a picture of her and her dog in my office. It reminds me every day why we started this. This is much more than a business – it’s very personal to me.”
Read the latest research on the impact of VetBilling payment plans on both for-profit and nonprofit veterinary hospitals and their clients in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.