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

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

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.”

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.

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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

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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.

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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