What to say when pet owners can't pay for veterinary care


Most pet owners want the best care for their pets. Erase the embarrassment factor for clients on tight budgets with these five tips to talk about cost.

Have you ever found yourself in a predicament where you can't afford something you want? If you're lucky, it was at home when you watched a travel show and realized you couldn't afford an around-the-world trip. You probably weren't embarrassed about not being able to afford this luxury. Well, what if you couldn't afford something you really needed? Even worse, what if that thing was for a member of your family? Would you feel guilty? Hurt? Embarrassed? Angry? This may be how our clients feel if they can't afford the care their pet needs.

When they can't—or won't—afford care

Yes, I agree that oftentimes people make poor decisions, getting a pet when they have little or no discretionary income. Yes, I know it makes us angry to see an owner pull up in a Cadillac SUV and then tell you to put their family pet to sleep because they can't—or won't—pay the $400 veterinary bill for treatment. I understand it makes you want to pull out your hair when people breed pets, then when an emergency in pregnancy occurs they can't—or won't—offer medical care and complain that they're going to lose money. I know you've lost the ability to chuckle at the little digs about how an exam room or wing should be named after their family. Really, I get it, and I've seen it too. But for the purpose of this discussion, let's focus on this: We can't change the situation, so let's learn how we can deal with it and implement some protocols to prevent these situations.

1 Start with a plan

It's easier to discuss money before we perform the service. Start with treatment plans, or estimates. If pet owners know the cost ahead of time, they can decide whether it fits into their personal budget before you put in the time and work.

Don’t make this MISTAKE

Start by creating some standard treatment plans in your software for the services you perform most. You can even make an "ADR" (Ain't Doin' Right) treatment plan to include an exam, lab work and maybe radiographs. Make sure you don't forget to add a medication line to the plan, and always offer a low and high range.

Of course, this isn't the perfect fix, and the pet's needs won't always be the same. But offering some idea of cost is better than offering nothing.

2 Collect a deposit

Next, if you're admitting a patient—especially with a new client—collect a deposit. This ensures that you'll be paid for services. This is also the time you'll find out who can't afford the treatment plan. There will still be clients who nod, agree and even sign the estimate. Then at checkout they'll say, "I don't have any money." Yes, I know what you're thinking: Do they go to Walmart and get to the cashier and say, "I'll be back on Friday to pay when I get paid"? No, but they will do it to us over and over again.

3 Offer updates

If a pet is hospitalized, the inpatient technician can give the owner a daily financial update and the doctor can give the medical update. It's only fair to the client and eliminates the sticker shock at discharge. Call it a daily comfort call. The technician working with the pet can tell the owner something about the pet—"He ate well today" or "She curled up with her teddy bear"—and follow up with the financial update. The key is to communicate when fees change. This is also true for routine estimates, such as the price change when a pet is in heat and you estimated for a routine ovariohysterectomy.

4 Share your financial policy

We can say we don't offer billing, and that may be our goal, but it may not be reality. Even if we do everything right, we're still going to end up with some accounts receivable—a client who escaped all our barriers. So you need a clear financial policy. Make sure your policy states what happens to unpaid accounts and the time intervals for each action. For example, at 30 days clients receive a letter and phone call. At 60 days they receive a different letter. At 90 days, the bill goes to collection. List the fees you charge on unpaid balances and include a billing fee and an annual interest rate. And because you'll have some accounts receivable, offer extended payments or billing.


5 Plan to collect

Designate a team member to take charge of, and closely monitor, accounts receivable. This could be the manager or an employee who's confident and professional. Be sure to train on what you can and can't say about unpaid bills, especially on an answering machine.

If you're responsible for this task, make sure you know your financial policy and follow it to a tee. Document all conversations and steps to collect the debt. And know your owner's or manager's guidelines for what the practice will accept.

Finally, your practice needs to have collection methods in place, whether it's a collection agency or trying to collect through small claims court. Research collection companies; some charge a percentage of the bill, some charge a flat rate and some require that you have a certain number of accounts to submit per month. And don't be too excited about getting payment. Chances are, you won't see it. The positive part of using an agency is that they will report to credit agencies. If that happens, clients may come back later to pay a debt so they can be approved for financing for a home or car.

Money conversations aren't easy, But these tips will reduce client embarrassment when they try to pay.

Donna Recupido, CVPM, is a hospital administrator at Veterinary Specialty Care in Charleston, S.C.

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