Price of Progress:
Financial Planning for Our Basenjis in a New Era of Veterinary Critical & Specialty Care
Karla A. Schreiber, J.D. (copyright 2003)
recent years, veterinary medicine has made tremendous advances with respect to
care and treatment options for our Basenjis and other companion animals.
Across the country, even in some non-urban areas, veterinary specialty
clinics, critical care facilities and ER clinics are sprouting up like daisy on
a warm spring day! Many of these clinics offer us options that, only a few years
ago, would not have been available. Basenjis
that had little or no chance of surviving a trauma, such as being struck by a
vehicle, can now be repaired and rehabilitated.
Basenjis with cancer can receive chemotherapy, and in some instances, may
have a good prognosis. Ultrasound
and other forms of medical imaging have vastly improved the ability of vets to
make accurate and early diagnoses of problems that, in days gone by, wouldn’t
have been detected until “it was too late.”
Board certified surgeons, orthopedic specialists, veterinary
dermatologists, internists, an entire team of specialists if necessary –
simply put, we now have MANY more options for the treatment for our Basenjis
when they are ill or injured.
as Shakespeare told us long ago, there is “…no joy without alloy.”
These veterinary specialists, and their state of the art facilities and
equipment, can come with a shockingly high price tag!
Human medicine has evolved (for better or worse) as an insurance-based
system. Whether our insurance is supplied by our employer, by a
governmental unit, or through another mechanism, the vast majority of Americans
have some form of health coverage that prevents them from being financially
devastated by accidental injury or illness.
A similar system is not yet in place with respect to veterinary services,
despite the tremendous advances in veterinary medicine, and the concomitant
increase in costs for critical and specialty vet care. Pet owners and breeders
alike are increasingly forced to make hard choices – weighing the value of
their animals’ lives against their own financial welfare.
an example from on my own recent experience.
In February 2003, I took my 8-year-old matron Basenji bitch, Mirrie to my
regular vet for a routine spay surgery. A
typical spay in my area costs approximately $180.
By the time that day was over, I was responsible for a bill totaling
nearly $2,500. Within 5 hours after
her surgery, Mirrie hemorrhaged from a tear in the soft tissue where the
ligament of her left ovary had been removed.
I rushed her to a veterinary ER clinic located less than 20 minutes from
my home. Thankfully, I took her to
a very high-tech facility that is capable of performing self-transfusions with a
patient’s own blood. Before her
second surgery of the day was complete, Mirrie had to be self-transfused twice. In case you are curious, transfusions are $200 each.
The ER surgeon was finally able to locate the tear and stop Mirrie’s
bleeding. However, she had lost so
much blood, and her body temperature was so low, that they did not believe she
would make it through the night. Her
only real chance was to spend the night in the clinic’s ICU.
An ICU vet spent the entire night with Mirrie – he was “her vet”
and took no other cases. He
monitored her condition continuously, and called me with hourly updates. The
updates went on until after midnight – when Mirrie finally “turned the
corner” and started to rally. Again,
in case you’re curious, having a vet “spend the night” with your Basenji
at an ICU clinic costs approximately $550-$600.
And of course, that doesn’t include all of the “extras” –
multiple blood tests, IV sets, heated cage setup, medications, etc.
you have $2,500 in spare change under your sofa cushions?
Do you have that much “room” on your charge cards?
Do you have that much money available in your checking account or
savings/money market account and could you part with it on a moment’s notice?
When a veterinary emergency strikes, decisions must be made quickly, and
under tremendous stress. Sometimes,
as in Mirrie's case, there is simply no time to discuss payments/costs at all
– she went straight from my arms to the ER vet’s surgery.
I am fairly certain that hundreds of dollars of work was performed on her
before anyone at the clinic could give me a ballpark estimate of what my final
costs might be. We were too concerned about whether she would survive!
was able to pay this bill – it hurt (ouch!!) but I paid it.
And if I hadn’t been able to pay it, I still wouldn’t have been out
of luck. The ER clinic that saved
Mirrie’s life offers two types of payment plans.
However, I wasn’t aware of that fact when I drove Mirrie to this
particular clinic – and I also wasn’t aware that some critical care and
specialty clinics do NOT offer such plans.
this experience made me wonder --
aren’t there some simple ways for us to plan for these unexpected emergencies
– taking into account the current state of veterinary medicine (which can now
do so much to treat our Basenjis and provide decent odds for a full recovery
from injury or disease)? The
balance of this article identifies a few ways that we can be better prepared to
cope with the sky rocketing costs of a veterinary emergency and specialty care.
Before you are faced with a veterinary emergency or a condition requiring
special treatment, gather information about the critical care and/or specialty
practices in your area. If
possible, visit them, and learn about the services they provide.
Would one clinic be a better place to take your Basenji if a car hits
her? Would another be a better
place to take your Basenji if he needs emergency diagnostic services, or
overnight supervision after a surgical procedure?
In short, evaluate TYPE and QUALITY of care FIRST – and know the range
of options available in your area. All of these clinics are expensive.
That goes without saying. Ask
the clinics in your area about payment plans, and study them carefully.
I can attest to the fact that it is FAR EASIER to read and understand a
payment plan when you are not wiping tears out of your eyes, and wondering if
your Basenji will live through the night. Decide
in advance which plan would work best for you. Some clinics may allow you to
“pre-qualify” for one of their payment plans, and let you complete all of
the necessary paperwork before you actually need their services.
You may be asked to provide one or more credit cards for the clinic’s
records, submit to a credit check, or show other evidence of financial ability
to qualify for these plans. Some
payment plans are as simple as a promissory note.
Others are credit plans provided through the auspices of financing
companies that are unrelated to the clinic itself.
At this point, there appears to be very little standardization, and each
clinic determines its own plan terms and conditions (or in some cases, declines
to offer payment options at all).
for a (Very) Rainy Day:
Consider starting a separate bank account and saving up what you can each month
as a “veterinary emergency”
fund. I’d suggesting aiming for a
balance of approximately $3,000-$5,000 depending on your location, and the
number of dogs you own. Even though
the account may grow very slowly, at least you will have some cold, hard cash
available that is specifically earmarked for emergency or specialty veterinary
care. This approach takes a lot of
self-discipline, but financially, it is a very sound approach!
If you can pay ANY portion of a large veterinary bill “in cash” you
will avoid months and/or years of interest charges.
Blue Cross/Blue Shield?
Look into various pet insurance options, but be aware of what pet health
insurance does and does not do! For
fanciers who have multi-Basenji households, insurance for each animal is
probably cost-prohibitive. The cost
of pet insurance goes up considerably as the insured animal ages.
For a yearling Basenji male insured through a major pet insurer, the cost
is about $135 per year. That’s
not too bad, but the amount quickly doubles and triples with each successive
year. Some insurance companies will
not cover animals that are intact, and most will not cover health issues related
to breeding/whelping. Most also
won’t cover injuries sustained through “voluntary participation” events
like agility, obedience or lure coursing.
you are interested in pet insurance, remember to review the policy completely
before you sign up for coverage. Be
careful to read and understand any exclusions that would apply to your Basenji
(for example, does your dog have any preexisting medication conditions that the
insurance will not cover?). Also be
aware of any exclusions based on breed-specific hereditary diseases (for
example, the policies that I’ve reviewed will not cover expenses associated
with hip dysplasia or Fanconi). Remember that pet insurance is claim-based
insurance. The insurance company
will reimburse you AFTER you submit a copy of your bill. Most ER and veterinary specialty clinics require payment at
the time services are rendered. Even though you have pet insurance, you will
still be required to make full payment to the clinic – and THEN submit your
bill to the insurer. Finally, the
pet insurance policies I’ve reviewed have total event limits and total annual
claim limits, and only pay a portion of any given claim (not the full amount).
short, pet insurance is not a panacea for the rising costs of
emergency/specialty veterinary care
at this point in time - especially for fanciers who breed their dogs and/or have
multi-dog households. In some
cases, however, insurance may be a useful part of an overall financial plan to
help cover extraordinary vet bills.
Extra Piece of Plastic … or Two:
Each year, most of us receive “pre-approved” credit card applications
in the mail. Most of the time we
throw them away. However, one way
to ensure that you can cover an unexpected veterinary bill is to accept one or
two of these offers. Even if the
credit limits on the cards are low – let’s say $300 or $500 – THAT amount,
plus whatever cash you may have saved (plus, perhaps, some coverage from an pet
health insurance policy and/or taking advantage of a payment plan offered by the
clinic) – could make the difference between paying a bill and not being able
to pay it. Again, self-discipline
is involved with this approach. The cards won’t help you in a pinch if
you’ve maxed them out to cover your vacation, holiday gifts, or routine
household expenses! Apply for the
cards, and then put them in a safe place until you need them.
Of course, these cards often come with high interest rates – so
positioning yourself to be able to pay a significant portion of the bill in cash
(or through a 90-days-same-as-cash plan, if your clinic offers one) is
definitely the best option.
emergencies are not unlike emergencies involving us, or our children. They are
frightening experiences that “hit us when we’re not looking” and can send
us into an emotional and financial tailspin.
In the not-so-distant past, the options for treating veterinary
emergencies were relatively limited – and many animals died due to the lack of
advanced diagnostic, surgical, and/or rehabilitative care. HAVING the options
that modern veterinary medicine gives to us is a blessing – but it is a
blessing that comes with a very high price.
Knowledge and good financial planning are important tools that
we can use to help defray that price! Take
the time to learn about the veterinary specialty and emergency care clinics in
your area, and give some serious thought to how you would deal with the
financial aspects of a veterinary emergency or costly specialized treatment or
surgery. It is probably a good idea
to combine several approaches (extra credit card, plus insurance, plus
segregated savings account, etc.) rather than selecting just one.
You and your Basenjis will benefit in the long term – whether you ever
have to execute your “emergency plan” or not.
There’s value in the peace of mind that comes from just being prepared!