It was Labor Day weekend and Francis Harrington’s pet basset hound Schuyler was lethargic and vomiting. Harrington believed Schuyler had swallowed a rock, as he had two previous times. On those occasions, his veterinarians had operated on Schuyler and removed the stones in relatively simple procedures that Harrington said cost between $800 and $900.

But his veterinarian’s office told him they no longer offered emergency service after hours or on holidays. He was directed to the Cape Animal Referral and Emergency Center in South Dennis, a hospital that opened at its new facility a year ago. It’s open around the clock every day of the year and brings state-of-the-art diagnostic and surgical tools, and personnel, to the Cape.

Cape residents once had to travel for more than an hour to get to the nearest emergency center in South Weymouth.

”I know of at least 10 dogs that died on that trip,” veterinarian Thomas Burns said.

Burns, president of the Cape Cod Veterinary Society, was one of the prime movers behind creating an emergency center on the Cape. A group of society members invested in building the center, which opened in January 2006.

But, with that equipment, staffing, extended hours and highly trained personnel comes increased costs that are generally passed on to the customer.

Harrington found that out when he was told Schuyler needed emergency surgery costing nearly $3,700 – more than four times what he’d paid previously for operations.

”I felt like they had me over a barrel,” he said. ”If that dog died because I wasn’t willing to pay what it cost, it would have killed my wife.”


Costs add up

A gastrotomy, surgery to remove a swallowed object, is relatively common in veterinary care. In 2003, a Consumer Reports investigation put the average price for such an operation at $274. But X-rays, sedatives, anesthesia and monitoring add another $222, for a $496 total for the operation. Additional diagnostic work, as well as the charge for your pet staying in the hospital, add more to the bill.

Harrington said he could afford to pay the increased cost, but believed the bill was inflated because the hospital was struggling financially.

Hospital Director Matthew Laing said the business is not profitable yet.

”We try to keep our pricing reasonable,” he said. ”We’re not in the game solely to make money. We’re here to be accessible.”

Laing said the operation on Schuyler was much more complicated than a typical gastrotomy. The rock had settled deep into the dog’s intestine, a portion of which had been compromised.

”It was a much more complicated, delicate surgery,” Laing said.

Schuyler swallowed another stone over Thanksgiving while the Harringtons were away on vacation. The bill from the veterinarian at Brewster Veterinary Hospital was $992.

”It’s extortion,” Harrington said of the emergency center bill. He filed a grievance last month with the state Attorney General’s Office and has taken the hospital to small claims court in Orleans for $2,000. His hearing comes up on Jan. 25.

”Any medical procedure can have unanticipated consequences, so an estimate is not carved in stone,” said Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association Executive Director Susan Weinstein.


‘No pricing guidelines’

There are no pricing guidelines or any external pressure on pricing imposed on veterinarians similar to what managed health care and insurance companies have done with human health care costs, Weinstein said.

According to a 2004 survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, just 3 percent of all pet owners carry insurance for their pets.

Laing said health insurance masks the true cost of health care for human patients, many of whom obtain care with little more than a modest co-pay.

Each veterinary clinic sets its own price, Weinstein said, and the higher tech emergency centers are the most costly because there are more specialists, more expensive equipment and more staffing to handle a 24-hour schedule. Veterinarians’ offices may leave pets overnight without anyone watching them, while the emergency facility has to have a vet and medical staff on duty at all times.

”This is the free market economy at work,” Weinstein said.

The general consensus among veterinarians is that they are underpaid and charge much less than their counterparts in human medicine.

Much like human health care, veterinary fees have been steadily rising over the past decade, in large part due to advances in pet care treatments, medicines and technology. For example, pacemakers, organ transplants, chemotherapy, dialysis, MRI exams, and CAT scans are now available for pets.

A decade ago, a vet may have told a pet owner a tumor was a death sentence. Now there is an extensive range of treatments that could extend your pet’s life.

But that comes with a price tag, like $3,000 for a pacemaker or $8,000 for a kidney transplant, according to a 2003 Consumer Reports investigation that found spending on veterinary care nearly tripled between 1991 and 2001 to $18.2 billion a year.

Research shows veterinarians are not pocketing a lot more money as a result of the increased spending on pet care. An American Veterinary Medicine Association report in 2003 showed the median income for private practice vets was $86,500.

Payment options

Veterinary offices are a lot like small hospitals. They must have the diagnostic equipment like X-rays and ultrasounds, as well as an operating room.

Laing said his colleagues know a emergency can mean major expenses overnight and can leave customers with a bill they can’t pay. They provide information on a low line of credit, information on pet insurance, and also offer their own payment plan. For those who qualify, there is a free care pool that Cape veterinarians help fund with contributions.

Lynne Gray took advantage of an interest-free line of credit offered by the emergency center when the bills for treating her cat Buttons soared up to nearly $4,000. Buttons was at the center for nearly five days as the vets tried to get him to eat and hold down food.

”Every day the bill went up,” said Gray. ”On the last day, they said he’d have to go into an oxygen tent.”

Gray does not regret spending the money trying to save Buttons.

 
 

”No, I’d do it again. I loved that cat,” she said. Although she thought the emergency center was expensive, she felt workers were very caring and did their best. Gray also thought it was wonderful to have an emergency center on Cape when veterinarian offices are closed.

”Most vets don’t want people going around saying negative things about their clinic,” Weinstein said. She advised pet owners to ask their veterinarian or the hospital’s medical director to discuss each item on the bill and the medical procedures done to their pet. She also said pet owners need to be aware of the itemized costs and not be blinded to those expenses by their love for the animal.

”It really stinks that you sometimes have to make the decision to let them live out the rest of their life and die,” she said.

Via Cape Cod Online