Clients Who Struggle with Vet Bills: Deadbeats, or Doing Their Best?

keep owner cropped

Deadbeat, n.
1. A lazy person: a person who does not work
2. A person who does not pay money that is owed
     – Merriam-Webster.com

Deadbeat, n.
“Any person who is financially irresponsible and tries as much as they can to get something for nothing. This person will do anything to avoid hard work. They will often try and manipulate others into giving them money, because they are too damned lazy to work for a living.”
   – urbandictionary.com

A blog post I recently read strongly implied that anyone who struggles to pay an emergency vet bill is a deadbeat.  And that really riled me up.  If that premise is true then I, and most of my friends and acquaintances, are deadbeats.

I haven’t talked to any pet owner who hasn’t been financially stressed – at one time or another – due to a veterinary emergency.  In worst-case scenarios, friends have been forced to choose euthanasia over treatment (and euthanasia isn’t exactly inexpensive.)

The blogger who authored the post has a small dog who was viciously attacked by large dog.  Her dog was saved thanks to extensive medical intervention that “required every member of the [emergency veterinary clinic] staff to help.”

Not surprisingly, this level of care was very costly, and, writes the blogger, “the estimates kept piling up and I just kept swiping my credit card. It wasn’t a question, it wasn’t a debate she needed emergency treatment and that was the end of the story.”

While I am happy that the blogger was able to afford life-saving veterinary care for her dog, not everyone who wants to save their pet can “just keep swiping their credit card.”

Two – or more – sides to every story
And those who can swipe away all day and night should not be critical or judgmental of all those who cannot.  The blogger was particularly hard on a family whose dog was having difficulty breathing.  She overheard them say that the breathing problems began a couple of days before, but they were fearful they couldn’t afford the cost of treatment, so they waited to bring the dog in, hoping the problem was minor and would resolve itself.  The family was denied financing by Care Credit, and when their dog passed away, the blogger claimed that they blamed the emergency clinic and refused to pay.

While this is a terrible scenario all the way around, there are always two (or more) sides to such issues.  While I think it is appalling and unacceptable for ANY pet owner to refuse to pay their vet because their animal died (after the vet tried to save it!), there are many more of us out here who have integrity and are willing to pay, but need a greater variety of WAYS to pay.  I think it is equally distressing, however, that there are people who want to provide veterinary care for their pet, but feel they must delay, or even forgo, seeking care because of fear that they can’t afford it. And it is their animal who then pays the ultimate price.

Image courtesy CesarsWay.com

Image courtesy CesarsWay.com

The cost of emergency vet care may be justifiable, but it’s out of reach for too many pet owners
The blogger is absolutely correct that emergency veterinary hospitals perform heroic life-saving feats every day, and these hospitals do indeed have a very high fixed overhead due to having to run a 24/7/365 specialty & critical care facility.  Emergency veterinary hospitals state that their pricing is in accordance with these fixed costs, and not arbitrarily inflated.  But…while high prices might be justifiable, they nonetheless drastically reduce the accessibility of care when payment options are not available to pet owners.

Unfortunately most – if not all – emergency facilities offer only one alternative to payment in full up front by cash or credit card – Care Credit (or another third-party financing company, sometimes Wells Fargo, CitiHealth or others, but Care Credit is offered by a majority of vets.)

With some reports indicating that as few as 1/3 of applicants are approved by Care Credit, that leaves a significant number of pet owners out in the cold, which could force them to make the painful decision to euthanize their pet.  And all because they may not have several thousand dollars in reserve funds – available immediately – to deal with a life-threatening emergency.

As far as setting aside savings for a veterinary emergency, even if one is a disciplined saver, it is difficult to accumulate thousands of dollars a year to safely earmark for emergency veterinary treatment.  What if your car transmission dropped out 2 days before your neighbor ran over your dog in the driveway? That reserve fund might have had to go to your car, and now your dog is at death’s door. What is a responsible, willing-to-pay-but-doesn’t-have-it-all-right-now pet owner to do?

Seeking middle ground
I DO believe payment plan alternatives to Care Credit (and other third-party financing plans) are the answer. However, to protect the financial interests of the veterinarian, such payment plans should be contract-based installment payments that are set up as automatic deductions from a client’s checking, savings or credit card account. This greatly increases the chances of client payment compliance, and when these types of payment plans are managed by a third-party provider, any problem transactions are handled by them, rather than veterinary staff.  As a result, default rates are drastically reduced as well.

I strongly believe there IS a middle ground. Companies like mine, as well as a few others across the U.S., are now providing this middle ground and we work very hard to ensure that our payment solutions work in favor of both the vet AND the pet owner.

Middle ground

Image via izquotes.com

Having pet insurance definitely helps and I am a staunch advocate of it, being a policyholder myself.  However, the way my insurance works I must pay the vet in full upfront, and then wait for my reimbursement, which can be a real hardship when faced with thousands of dollars in veterinary expense.

For the rare pet owner who does have pet insurance (unfortunately,  only about 2% in the U.S.), an installment payment plan allows them to defer paying in full for a short time while they wait to receive their benefit check. In a sense it is like a “bridge loan” extended by the veterinary practice. In the meantime, using a contract-based installment payment plan, the pet owner may put down up to 50%, and agree to automatic withdrawals until they receive their pet insurance payment. At that point they can pay off the balance in full.

 

Yes, installment payment plans mean that payment to the ER is deferred for a short time. However, our data indicates that the total percentage of clients needing such payment plans is still very small when compared to the total number of clients served.  The likelihood of the majority of pet owners needing installment payment plans is extremely low (in the practices we serve, that number is typically less than 2% of their active clients.)  But for the small percentage of pet owners who really need financial help, a payment plan can literally be the difference between life and death for their pet.

(Read about a real life-or-death case here: “How a payment plan saved Daisy.”)

The vet practices who work with my company can choose to limit payment plan eligibility to specific procedures (such as unblocking a cat, or treating a hit-by-car), or to certain dollar amounts (for example, $500 – $1000 minimum.)  However, while it may make little sense – from the vet’s perspective – to offer pet owners a payment plan for less than this, there are still many people for whom $250 of unexpected expense is a lot of money to have to come up with immediately.  That’s why it’s helpful to be able to tailor a financial solution to the needs of each individual clientThird-party installment payment plan providers such as mine allow for this, since we tend to be more flexible with amounts and payment terms than are third-party credit-based finance companies.

There may be no perfect solution, but we CAN do something!
While there isn’t a perfect solution to this issue, I believe more could be done to mitigate this growing problem. And I am talking about helping RESPONSIBLE pet owners, not people who are looking to get something for free or who never have any intention of paying. Those people DO qualify as “deadbeats,” and unfortunately, we all have to contend with such problem clients from time to time because there ARE lousy, irresponsible people in the world. But for veterinary hospitals to rule out offering alternative payment solutions to decent, responsible pet parents – all because of fear of “The Deadbeats” – well, that doesn’t seem quite fair to me either.  There IS a point on the spectrum that lies in between these two extremes.

deadbeat clients (2)

I hate to see people have to prematurely part with a pet due to the cost barrier. If we at VetBilling can do ANYTHING to reduce economic euthanasias and owner surrenders, then I will be satisfied that we have made a difference.

AND, just as important….if in doing so we can also provide a reliable, consistent means of making sure vets get compensated in full; reduce their client delinquencies; and even help them attract and retain clients in an increasingly competitive market, then that’s even better. That is the icing on the cake!

Join the conversation, share your story
Please join the conversation, and share your thoughts and experiences on this topic, as it touches so many of us.

Further reading for pet owners:

Further reading for veterinarians & veterinary practice managers:

Did you know?

Those who are declined for 3rd-party financing are not necessarily poor credit risks!

A CNN Money report filed in late 2013 noted that there are at least 64 million Americans who have no credit score at all — and would therefore be denied conventional financing.  However, these “unscoreables,” as they’re called, are not necessarily a poor credit risk.  VantageScore, a credit scoring company, found that about 1/3 of unscoreable consumers aren’t high risk at all.  In fact, most of them hold professional jobs or are retired, more than 40% are homeowners, and income distribution is in line with the consumers who do have scores, according to Experian.

See “Millions without credit scores not so risky after all,” at CNN Money

10 Comments

  1. Steve Dorsey

    Great article. I make a very good salary but I do not always have that extra cash or credit available for those unexpected bills. I can totally relate to this story and totally agree that just because I need a little extra time to pay a bill, it does not make me a deadbeat. The blogger you referred to should be ashamed. They must be in that 1% group that keeps getting richer while us middle class people keep getting poorer.

    Reply
  2. Joanne

    Just two months after I received my 11 week old puppy she got extremely ill in the middle of the night. I had to take her to an emergency pet hospital where they needed to keep her overnight which then was extended to about 5 days. They explained that many diagnostics needed to be performed to determine what was wrong with her. The upfront amount I was required to pay was about $1000.00 before they would start treating her. Their estimated cost for her entire treatment was in the range of $2500 to $5000. Needless to say the amount of stress and hardship I had to deal with was overwhelming. I had 2 choices: to euthanize because they were not sure they could cure or go ahead with treatment, and pray she would be alright. Of course I wanted them to treat her and get her healthy again! I managed to pay the bill which exceeded $5000! I had just started a new job and did not qualify through Care Credit. If the vet costs could have been paid in installments a great deal of financial burden to me would have been alleviated. I will be seeking a Veternarian that offers in house payment plans.

    Reply
  3. Lee

    This affects *everyone* who owns and loves a pet (and/or a horse!), since we ALL face the inevitable vet bills, and they are often cripplingly high. Vets need to be paid, and animals need to be treated–but it shouldn’t result in extreme financial hardships for the owner.

    Reply
  4. Sad

    Not a bad article but , veterinarians are not all money grubbing as the media can sometimes suggest. But after 38 years managing both small and large veterinary practices, my experience has been that less than 20%of clients that have been granted the courtesy of a payment plan , actually keep to the agreement, which necessitates further attempts to collect.
    Clinics cannot function as a bank, our suppliers will not grant us the same courtesy, our staff would not tolerate their checks being delayed a few weeks, labs, medication suppliers must be paid. Times have changed and clinics cannot afford the risks anymore and are being guilted in the media. It is not a vets fault if clients credit cards are maxed out.

    Don’t get me wrong we already do extend the courtesy to well established loyal customers, but deadbeats can be well disguised , driving a Lexus, possessing the latest electronic gadgets, Facebook pictures of the latest vacation. And their online rants about how badly they were treated by their vet. It is disheartening. With the significant debt load this next generation of vets have, the days of “good ol doc, pay me whenever” is gone. I am sorry for them.

    Reply
  5. Chris Felthauser

    I am dealing with this right niw. I have a good job and make a good living but unfortunately went through a divorce a couple of years ago that pretty much devastated my credit. I went to apply with care credit, with whom I have previously had an account with several years ago when dog needed emergency back surgery. Financed over $7K back then and paid it off in 3 months. This time I was denied. I have recently sold my house which I expect to close on in a few weeks and I am walking away with about $350k in profit from that. Trying to get money out of my 401K But it’s Sunday on Labor Day weekend so good luck with that. I am far from a deadbeat and have the resources just not immediately available and now I’m at the end of my rope and dint know what to do. I am not going to lose my best friend over something as ridiculous as money. I can make more of that any time. I can’t get another best friend like her. I just came home and now am throwing all my belongings into my driveway and slapped up a yard sale sign. I’m selling anything and everything but yet I’m still a far cry from the $4k they want as a deposit right now. What’s a person to do? It’s kind of irritating because the clinic can see my past account history where I’ve spent over $10k in the last several years taking care of my pet. But that doesn’t seem to matter. I get it they need to get paid, but I don’t think I’m a bug risk by any means.

    Reply
    • Tony Ferraro

      As Suzanne replied to Mike we understand your frustration. We are starting to see a small shift in how veterinary hospitals are starting to realize they must be willing to offer more payment alternatives. Especially an alternative that does not require credit approval. Pet owners must understand that practices need to make money to stay open and veterinarians must stop thinking that pet owners that cannot afford to pay in full at time of service are all dead beats.

      Reply
      • Chance

        Funny thing is it’s a good probability that those even working at the Vet possibly even the Vet’s themselves wouldn’t have the cash to pay for some of these expenses. That is why I find it appalling that they can have these views or policies yet don’t realize they are in all likelihood in the very same boat.

        A Nurse for 10yrs and have worked in the medical field my entire life, I can tell you from personal knowledge that Medical Doctors are not by any means wealthy or rich. The debt they go into after 10yrs of medical school often takes them 3x’s that to pay back, all while trying to keep up w/ the Jones’es in their personal lives.

        Reply
  6. Chris

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Veterinary hospitals need to stop assuming everyone is rich & has unlimited funds up front. Not everyone has a credit card or has the means to borrow from someone else. Not everyone will be approved for Care Credit. Not everyone has more than a few dollars from paycheck to paycheck. Vets need to realize not everyone lives in the Beverly Hills zip code.

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  7. Chance

    Not sure when this article was written and I read to the point of calling people who couldn’t pay for ER Vet Bills Deadbeats. Which also infuriated me, because it’s a blind wildly accusatory statement. Today as I write this it’s 8/2018, a study was published recently that the majority of Americans have less than a few hundred dollars in their savings account if any at all.
    That study in and of itself puts pretty much all of us in the same boat, so for those people who dare call someone a deadbeat for not being able to afford a several thousand dollar vet bill, well odds are really good neither can they!!! POT CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK!

    I was a Nurse for 10yrs, in Oct 2001 I was recalled to Active Duty as a combat medic, 3 months later I suffered a serious head injury and spent the better part of the next 2yrs in a chemically induced coma for the brain injury. I exited the Hospital March 2003 and was placed on VA Disability subsequently losing my Nursing License. In ’03 & ’04 I acquired to service animals (Cat’s) Pretty Girl & Sebastian. I went from an annual salary of $50K-$60K as a Nurse to $25K as a Disabled Veteran my financial resources were limited, not to mention my credit was now an utter joke!

    So I did what I thought was the responsible thing and checked on Pet Insurance, but 16 years ago it only covered routine things like checkups, immunizations etc… at least the policies I came upon. For better part of 13 to 14 years my only Vet expenses were the routine exams and shots.

    Then early 2017 my handsome man Sebastian became ill, stopped eating and drinking, between the ER visit and getting to my regular Vet was a total of $1500 just to find out what was wrong w/ him (He ingested a rubber band) required emergency surgery, I was broke until I got my disability pension 10 days later, so I asked my Vet how much to put him to sleep, and surprisingly she is an angel and offered to loan the surgery $1500 to me with my word to pay her back on 1st. She saved his life!!

    2 months later my Pretty Girl was diagnosed with Lymphoma, a death sentence, but with treatment they could live up to 2yrs or more… The diagnostics on this alone set me back right at $1500 as well, and I hadn’t yet recovered from Sebastian’s bills.

    Both my babies are older cats at the time 14 & 15, but don’t be mistaken they are my babies. I recall getting so angry that the bills were so high, and that people had laws to protect us and get us treatment when going to hospital but animals don’t get the same benefits. I was so angry I told the ER Vet “How would you feel if you brought your child into an ER I was working in and you didn’t have the $200K to pay for a surgery they needed to save their lives, and I just handed your child back to you for you to take home and watch die”). I hate it’s all about $$, but I learned from my Vet that she had helped many other owners just like myself over the years, and apparently the majority of them have burned her, either never paying her back, or surrendering their cat to her etc…

    Faced w/ a high monthly bill to treat my Pretty Girls cancer around $1000 a month, I chose to live out of my SUV with my 2 babies to make sure should a surgery be needed that I had the $$ to pay for it. Pretty Girl made it 10 months passing away on 12/06/17…

    July 2018 my Sebastian and I are back living in a $1500 month condo, and out of the blue my handsome man began acting strange and again his eating has changed, we have now made 2 trips to the ER over $1200 all labs are x-rays are good, went to a local Vet specialist because I’m paranoid now he ate something again, we are over $1300 into tests and all show no negative results… It’s end of August and I still haven’t been able to pay Augusts rent because I wanted to make sure Sebastian was taken care of..

    Over the years I have asked many Vets what is the right amount to put into savings to be ready for any pet emergency’s, every single one hymed & hawed and couldn’t give me an answer. I went off again on another ER Vet on the costs, and she quipped that many pet owners don’t do the proper financial planning as a pet owner should, and some are not financially able to properly care for a pet meaning they shouldn’t have a pet if they can’t afford the random Vet bills. I popped right back throwing that recent study of the majority of Americans don’t even have a few hundred dollars in savings, and if everyone went by her advice or the way she and others viewed things then she wouldn’t have a job as no one would own pets, because the majority of Americans are paycheck to paycheck.

    I bet she can’t afford to pay for several hundred thousand dollars of work to herself or loved one should they need life saving surgery! Funny how we all judge and don’t realize the ramifications of our words, and how we are even talking about ourselves in these instances.

    In closure; Medicine recognizes our pets as part of our family, simply buy looking at how we care for our pets by the $$ we spend on them and how we grieve for the loss of a pet. So I am not off base when making those comments about referencing my cats to someones child!

    Reply
    • Tony Ferraro

      Chance,

      This adversarial role between pet owner and vet is a big problem and needs to stop. The pet owner needs to understand the vet needs to make money to cover their overhead. The veterinary clinic has the same equipment and more likely more equipment then human medicine. In human medicine you have to go to three or four different locations and doctors. Whereas in vet medicine everything is in one location, office visit, surgery, blood work, x-ray and dental. They have the school debt also. However, the veterinarian needs to understand that wages have not increased, people do not have money in savings and they need to be more sympathetic to the costs and give pet owners multiple payment options.

      Reply

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