Most veterinarians reduce prices so animals can get care, survey finds

Few practices track discounts systematically

July 16, 2014 (published)
By Jim Downing

Most private-practice veterinarians routinely discount services and products, chiefly so that animals can receive needed care, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by researchers at Colorado State University.

The survey responses, along with accounts from veterinarians, suggest that the role of price as a barrier to veterinary care is complex.

Government price surveys indicate that the cost of veterinary care in the United States is rising at more than twice the rate of inflation, and several national media outlets have reported recently on cases of “economic euthanasia"; how much people are willing to pay for a pet’s medical care; and pet owners struggling to cover veterinary care.

Yet, private-practice veterinarians as a group appear to be willing to reduce prices in a variety of circumstances for the sake of a pet’s health.

“It's an incredibly philanthropic group … they’re giving away a great deal of both services and products,” said Dr. Lori Kogan, an associate professor and psychologist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State and the lead author of the study.

Kogan found that more than 99 percent of the veterinarians who responded offer discounts on services at least sometimes and often frequently: 68 percent provide reduced-price services at least several times per month; just under 36 percent give discounts at least several times weekly; and 14.5 percent give discounts daily. The respondents provide discounts on products (as opposed to services) at roughly similar rates.

Survey respondents cited a desire to provide the best possible care for a patient as by far the most important reason for discounting services as well as products. Veterinarians reported lowering prices in a wide variety of situations beyond a client’s inability to pay, from giving standard discounts to members of the military, owners of service animals or local rescue groups, to offering a good deal as a courtesy to other veterinarians, a perk for staff members or a favor to friends and family. At the same time, survey results indicated that veterinarians are not receptive to haggling by clients.

The survey was distributed from November 2013 to January 2014 to 28,437 members of the Veterinary Information Network, an international online community for the profession. (The vast majority of VIN members live in the United States and Canada.) Of the 989 responses to the survey, 95 percent were from companion animal veterinarians in private practice. Kogan and her co-authors have prepared a journal article on the results that is currently in review.

Pro bono work is common in other professions, notably law. A 2009 study found that 74 percent of lawyers in solo practice perform pro bono work, for an average of just under 80 hours annually.

Kogan’s survey found that few veterinarians — less than 25 percent — keep track of the ad hoc discounts that they provide on products and services. Kogan pointed to this result as a potential concern for practices: without tracking, veterinarians can’t evaluate the effect of discounting on profitability.

(For tax purposes, the value of veterinary services provided for free can’t be counted as a donation or a deductible expense, according to Tom McFerson, a partner at Gatto McFerson, a financial services firm in Santa Monica, California, that specializes in veterinary practices. Medications, supplies, and other out-of-pocket expenses related to such a procedure generally can be counted as business expenses, he said.)

Dr. Bryce Fleming, who owns Powell River Veterinary Hospital in British Columbia, is an example of someone who doesn’t track his pro bono work. He explained why in a telephone interview.

“It would bother me,” to track the value of those services, he said. “I'm doing it because it makes me feel better. I don't look at the bottom line.”

Fleming said he generally offers discounts or free services to needy clients whom he knows and trusts, or for the sake of a sick or injured animal that captures his heart.

What Fleming won’t do is give a discount simply because a client asks for it. That stance fits with another result from Kogan’s survey: a large majority of respondents reported that pressure from clients was not an important factor in the decision to offer a discount.

Dr. Bo Reich, a partner in Suwannee Oaks Animal Clinic in O’Brien, Florida, said she generally will not offer direct discounts because she doesn’t want to give the impression that her services are worth less than full price.

But, Reich said, she frequently treats animals even when she believes that their owners don’t have the money to pay. She often offers these clients long-term payment plans, accepting that the practice is unlikely to collect.

“If they really can't afford it, we try to do anything we can to help,” Reich said.

Reich’s clinic also maintains a donor-funded account on which veterinarians can draw to treat animals with urgent conditions that their owners appear unable to afford. This approach, she said, is another way that the clinic can provide care for an animal while making clear to clients that the services do have significant costs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that prices for veterinary services have increased 58 percent since 2004, compared with inflation of 26 percent over the same period. In part, the increase is a correction for a decades-long period, ending in the mid-1990s, during which veterinary prices rose more slowly than inflation.

The agency separately surveys prices for “Purchases of pets, pet supplies, and accessories,” a category that includes all products sold in veterinary clinics (as well as at many other outlets). Prices for these items have been lagging inflation, rising just 10 percent in the past decade.

The government’s price survey is designed so that the average price data will reflect any discounts given to clients. All outlets for veterinary services, including nonprofit and other reduced-price clinics, are covered by the price survey. That is, the data indicate that average prices for veterinary services are rising despite the growing number of nonprofit clinics and the discounting practices documented in Kogan’s survey.

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