Veterinary Debt Collection: Late Payments vs. Pet Safety!

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shutterstock_157682909A tough situation many veterinarians are faced with during their careers is this: What do you do when a pet owner suddenly stops paying his or her bill or falls behind on payments, but you know the animal needs your care/treatment? And, to complicate matters even more, what do you do when you have a long-standing relationship with the animal? 

We wish there were a simple answer to this, but there isn’t. Ultimately, the unique challenge is balancing the financial needs of your clinic with the relationships you have with your animal patients and their owners, and the necessity of utilizing veterinary debt collections when necessary. National coverage of a recent and unfortunate circumstance solidifies the importance of handling these types of situations with care.

Recent Media Shedding Some Light

This past August, ABC News highlighted Karen Kelly’s story. She is suing Advanced Critical Care and Internal Medicine Inc., a 24-hour critical care center, because they allegedly threatened to report her for animal cruelty after she elected against a $10,000 surgery for her dog, Mojo. The article reports that,

The defendants also told Kelly that “if she insisted on taking her dog home, that she would have to sign a form indicating that it was against” their medical advice, “and that they were going to report her to the authorities for ‘animal cruelty,’ which is a crime,” the lawsuit states … She was “required to and forced to sign an agreement to pay said amount in full the very next day, or she would be turned over to [veterinary debt collection],” the lawsuit states.

California law states that each case is looked at individually, meaning there isn’t a set of prescribed circumstances that determines whether or not owners are legally responsible to pay for medical care for injured pets. Nonetheless, the day after Mojo’s accident, local animal control authorities attached a notice to Kelly’s door notifying her that an investigation was being conducted to determine if she was guilty of animal cruelty.

Considerations When Owners Do Not Pay

The bad press Advanced Critical Care and Internal Medicine Inc. received from this story is difficult to calculate, but likely extremely damaging. Needless to say, handling these types of situations with diplomacy will serve you well in the long run!

A few points to keep in mind:

  • First of all, it is important to find out if the owner is skipping out on the bill intentionally or if he or she really does not have the money. The only way of finding this out is to take the time to evaluate their actions – not just their words – when you approach them about the situation, and use your best judgment and insight.
  • shutterstock_157781195If you choose to care for your animal patient at the risk of not being paid because it is a life-or-death emergency, it is a good idea to find out from your accountant to see what options you have to write-off these types of expenses as “charity” or “donations.” Not that you’ll want to make a common practice of doing this, but if you discover that it doesn’t hurt your financial bottom line, you may be inclined to offer this service to needy, long-term patients.
  • Consider offering in-house payment plans. Helping clients stretch out their bill to prevent vet debt collection will not only help secure your relationship with them, it will give pet owners a chance to get current without having to put their pet’s health in jeopardy.
  • Bartering is growing in popularity and could always be a consideration. Ask pet owners if they are willing to sign an agreement to clean kennels, answer phones, walk the dogs, etc., in lieu of cash payment.  Granted, it’s an unorthodox approach, but in theory it could help you save some costs related to part-time labor.
  • CareCredit is another fantastic resource to suggest. Most people are approved for healthcare related expenses (including veterinary), even if their overall credit is sub-par.
  • As a last resort, you can provide the list of local and national animal welfare organizations and advocacy groups (compiled below) to offer to your clients. These organizations provide financial assistance for veterinary bills and may help keep a pet owner out of veterinary debt collection.

YOUR TURN: How have you handled situations with long-standing pet owners where they were unable to pay their bills? What worked? What didn’t? We want to hear from you – share your experience!

Sources:

National organizations that offer financial assistance for veterinary needs:

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    1 Comment

  1. If you allow someone to “work off their bill” and s/he gets hurt while working it off, does your Worker’s Comp Ins cover him/her?

    Tia Nelson, DVM

    November 16, 2013

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John Erickson