The Price of Progress:

Financial Planning for Our Basenjis in a New Era of Veterinary Critical & Specialty Care

By Karla A. Schreiber, J.D. (copyright 2003)

In 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. 

However, 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. 

Here’s 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. 

Do 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! 

I 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. 

Surviving 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. 

Knowledge is Power: 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).

 Saving 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.

 Canine 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.

 If 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).   

In 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.

 An 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.

 Veterinary 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!