The stable, yet rising, costs of veterinary care

Medical Articles

The word “insurance” has become a lightning rod for all of us, the daily news fills the airwaves with talk about the runaway costs of healthcare. There is so much involved with medical billing and insurance on the human side. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated that human medical practices spend up to 27% of their revenue on the administrative costs in handling billing. Most of today’s human health insurance is managed care where the insurance companies have contracts with doctors and medical facilities and have negotiated to provide care for members at reduced costs. These providers become the plan's network and you need to go to these doctors to get the most out of the plan. How much the insurance company will pay depends on the network. Indemnity insurance, which is what pet insurance is, allows you to direct your own health care and go to the doctor or hospital of your choice. The veterinarian takes care of your pet, then you pay the veterinarian with the insurance company reimbursing you a portion of your total charges. Just to set the record straight…veterinarians do not get “kickbacks” from the insurance companies. Pet insurance just allows pet owners to pay for their pet’s care. The beauty of the indemnity model is that the veterinarian fills out only a short description of services and faxes it to the insurance company. That is it. Veterinarians do not need to pay people just to handle the insurance billing. Our practices simply could not afford to.

It’s no wonder that people often joke that they wish they could sign up for Embrace Human Insurance. The indemnity model avoids the nightmare that is billing and coding errors. It is a win/win situation for everyone involved; the owner, the pet, and the veterinarian.

To me, pet insurance is a no brainer. It allows the pet owner to get the best care, and allows the veterinarian to practice the best medicine that is warranted. Veterinary medicine, like everything else, has gotten more expensive. If you look at the service compared to human medical, it is still a value, and vet fees are not going to get any cheaper.

But, while veterinary billing has remained uncomplicated, there is an emerging trend that is impacting the cost of care, and that’s the increasing specialization in veterinary medicine. I was taught to become proficient in all aspects of surgery and medicine so that, as a general practitioner, I could handle most situations presented. Now, with an increased emphasis on specialists in school, the students are taught to refer many things that at one time were commonly handled by the general practitioner. This saddens me. The general practitioner often becomes more of a conduit to a number of specialists, just like in human medicine. I think this is leading to a growing number of disillusioned vets.

When we and our pets become “pieces parts” with each specialist treating one organ system only, it’s possible that the intricate interactions of organ systems and how disease can affect them all can be overlooked. Disease does not happen in the vacuum of a single organ system. What has this change meant to pet owners? Often the dog gets transferred to a number of specialists, each with their own costs, meaning increased costs for the owner. Specialists are inherently more expensive, and with the change in the veterinary education system, finding a general practitioner to handle the problem might not be an option in some areas. Often the cost is just too much for people to afford and euthanasia then becomes the only financial option. That is a very sad consequence.

Pet insurance can be so valuable in these cases. It is so nice to walk in, tell the owners the best therapeutic options for their pet, and have them say ,”I have pet insurance… go ahead.” I have seen it happen so many times in my practice. In the 5 years that we have had clients using Embrace Pet Insurance, Embrace has paid out over $127,000 in claims for our clients. Some of these cases would have had much sadder outcomes if pet insurance was not an option. So, in a time when costs are on the rise, despite our efforts to keep things simple, pet insurance has really been a positive experience for us and our clients.

Dr. Rex Riggs grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron. Dr Riggs is co-owner of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Powell, Ohio. He is also on the board of the North Central Region of Canine Companions of Independence, a board member of The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine Alumni Society and Small Animal Practitioner Advancement Board at The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Riggs lives in Lewis Center, OH with his wife Nancy, their dogs Maggie and Ossa, and cat Franklin. Outside of work, Dr. Riggs is an avid golfer and cyclist, and enjoys travel and photography.