This article originally appeared in Maryland Dog Magazine.
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 to pay her bill up front and then wait for weeks to be reimbursed. Third-party financing wasn’t an option due to her personal circumstances. “I just didn’t have $4,000 readily available – many people don’t. 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 ended up putting the entire amount on the one credit card I had. I maxed it out, and it took years to pay it off – at 21% interest! 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 now hopes she can give more options to other pet owners. Along with her partner, Tony Ferraro, she helped launch VetBilling.com in 2014. Ferraro owns Electronic Billing & Customer Support, a Maryland-based electronic payment processing firm he founded 30 years ago 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.com 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 sophisticated payment processing 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 that would address 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 their pet gets treatment without cost getting in the way. For the veterinarian, worries about getting paid are significantly reduced because VetBilling.com sets up automatic drafts from the client’s checking, savings or credit card account. The vet doesn’t have to invoice, track payments, or make uncomfortable collection calls. And VetBilling’s payment compliance rate currently ranges between 97 and 100% – which means the system is working the way its creators hoped it would.
VetBilling.com also offers a credit assessment tool to help veterinary practices determine the risk involved in offering a payment plan. The web-based application allows the vet to enter basic client data, then instantly returns a credit grade along with recommendations for a down payment and length of plan. According to Ferraro, “we designed the system so it executes a ‘soft’ credit pull, meaning it won’t show on the client’s credit report or affect their credit score.”
VetBilling.com won’t deny a payment plan to a client based on credit grade. “The vet decides whether to offer a payment plan, not us,” says Ferraro. “If a trustworthy client has fallen on hard times, and the vet wants to offer a payment plan, we won’t turn them down. Our credit scoring system is simply a guideline so the vet can make an informed decision. We won’t rule out someone who really needs a payment plan if the vet is willing to offer it.”
VetBilling.com’s payment plans are offered by several Maryland veterinary clinics, among them Hunt Valley Animal Hospital, Frederick Road Veterinary Hospital, and Perry Hall Animal Hospital. Valley Veterinary Hospital in Middletown and Carroll County Veterinary Clinic in Westminster, MD, offer the plans, too. In fact, VetBilling’s services are now available in hundreds of veterinary hospitals in 40 states. (A complete list of all participating veterinarians can be found by clicking on the “Participating Vets” tab from the home page at VetBilling.com.)
According to the team at Frederick Road Veterinary Hospital (FRVH), client feedback about the program has been very positive. Veterinarians and owners of FRVH, Drs. Dan and Lisa Zakai, say clients are grateful to have a payment option that fits their budget. “We realize that not everyone who loves their animal qualifies for a credit card, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t pay,” says Dr. Lisa Zakai. “This option allows us to be more flexible.”
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. “Our first success story came from a retired woman on a fixed monthly income whose 5 year old dog needed emergency surgery,” shares Cannon. “She was turned away by one vet because she didn’t qualify for third-party financing. She went to Frederick Road Vet, where they’d just implemented our program. They set her up on a 3 month payment plan. Not only was her dog’s life saved, she paid off her balance early. I have a picture of Peggy and her dog, Daisy, 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.”