Vail Pet Talk: Spend wisely on pet care
Ever wonder why fees are different at different animal hospitals? I will try to explain but remember these words: caveat emptor, or buyer beware.
Let me start with the good news! A report released last month showed that, according to the Nationwide Purdue Veterinary Price Index, the cost of taking a pet to the veterinarian has actually decreased over the past five years. This groundbreaking study refutes the U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index, which holds veterinary inflation at 15 percent, nearly double the average inflation rate for all consumer sectors.
But I also must preface this article by saying it is a touchy subject, even for someone like me who likes to speak his mind. I don’t relish the thought of criticizing my own profession or colleagues and, for the record, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are good and fair people who make a modest but comfortable living practicing a noble profession.
Consumer Reports have written about the disparity in veterinary fees a number of times. I have seen prices up to three times what the rest of us charge for routine services like blood work, with no plausible explanation forthcoming from the hospital owner.
It is largely up to professionals to police their own; state regulators have a difficult time doing it, as it requires a formal complaint process. This is a fact. I served 10 years as the ethics committee chair for the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association. I feel a certain obligation to protect the public. I am far from a crusader, but I always follow my convictions.
VET FEES VARY
Unlike the human medical industry, the veterinary medical industry is regarded as a free market business. That means veterinarians are free to set whatever fees they choose. You, as a consumer, are free to choose your veterinarian. You are also free to ask for an estimate of services before they are performed. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to question those fees except in a civil court of law.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies states on its website: “The Division’s boards and programs are not legally authorized to impose civil remedies, such as monetary damages to compensate complainants, or to resolve fee disputes, which are civil matters.”
Here is what Consumer Reports had to say about this in a 2003 article: “Many consumers have no idea what a fair price is, so shopping around is a must.”
“Always get an estimate from two or three vets,” said Dr. David Beckstrom, a Denver vet who has been in the business for 18 years and thinks many in his profession take advantage of consumers. “Nine out of 10 times, the average-Joe practice will provide the same treatment, but one vet’s price may be two to three times what others will charge.”
Again, in a 2011 report called “Tame Your Pet Costs,” Consumer Reports writes: “Our suggestion is to call at least two or three nearby vets and ask what their physical-exam fee is. … The exam fee forms the cornerstone of every vet bill. … The range of fees to, say, repair a mid-sized dog’s tibia fracture can grow significantly wider: $726 to $1,207, according to the 2008 survey.”
COMPARE APPLES TO APPLES
Fees vary among veterinary hospitals for a variety of reasons. A common example is spaying your dog, or an ovariohysterectomy. While a routine procedure, not all veterinary hospitals perform or price them the same way. Some include the American Veterinary Medical Association recommended pre-op blood tests, IV line, post-op pain meds and take home supplies. Others price them as optional add-ons. All consumer experts agree you need to compare apples to apples when price shopping.
Other reasons for disparity are some hospitals use more generic drugs (which is fine), different drugs or anesthetics, or have newer equipment, for example, digital X-ray machines. Both Sevoflourane and Isoflourane are safe, proven-effective anesthetics, but one costs 10 times more than the other. Some hospitals have higher overhead (think upvalley real estate costs versus Eagle or Gypsum) and some hospitals use certified vet techs whereas others train their own techs. Again, both approaches are OK, it all lies on the veterinarian’s shoulder to provide competent support staff. The veterinarian is the captain of the ship; the buck truly stops at my desk!
FIND THE RIGHT FIT FOR YOU
There are also differences among practice philosophies between veterinarians. Some are very proactive, some employ strictly holistic approaches, some are mixed and still others are more laid back. Find a veterinarian who meets your philosophy, and do not be bullied into accepting an approach that does not fit for you.
Like you should with all of your professionals, find a good fit with your veterinarian. One of my favorite stories is about a client in Florida who went to the shelter clinic for vaccines but came back to our hospital due to our level of personal service. “What happened?” I asked her. She said “I was in the waiting room and a nurse came out and shouted, “Hey you with the black dogs, over here.”
Stephen Sheldon, DVM, practices at Gypsum Animal Hospital. He is past president of the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association and served more than a decade on the executive board. He can be reached at 970-524-3647, http://www.gypsumah.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.