My dog had to go to the veterinarian on Tuesday for her annual visit. Where I live vets aren’t particularly cheap, but they have one thing us human patients do not: price transparency. Since most pet owners don’t have health insurance for their pets, they are more price sensitive. Because vets don’t have many different insurance companies to bill, prices tend to be uniform.
One vet we’ve patronized even has a list of lab test prices on each exam room wall. It explains the cost of various individual tests and a package price if all were performed together. Another vet has a note on the interior door that reads, “Did you make an estimate???” When is the last time you saw a sign like that in your physician’s office? Probably never.
Before we went in on Tuesday my wife called the vet office to ask for prices. The office manager informed us the office visit would be $60, while a heart worm test would cost $55. By contrast, I’ve had a doctor literally tell me he couldn’t estimate the cost until he billed the insurance company. I was trying to pay him because I had not met my deductible. He told me to wait and he’d bill me.
During the Corvid-19 lockdown, veterinarian practices saw their business rise as more people adopted dogs and cats. Vet clinics had to be innovative. I recall taking my dog to the vet where I had to escort her to the door and wait outside while the veterinarian examined her without me. One time we talked to the vet on the phone from the parking lot and a vet tech came and examined the dog in my SUV. She sent iPhone photos to the veterinarian inside. We’ve had two different annual exams that took place over Zoom. One time the veterinarian’s cat jumped up on the counter and walked in front of her webcam.
My wife has equine veterinarians who make house calls. Well, not exactly, they make barn calls. One has a big custom trailer he pulls to the stables that has all the x-ray machines, medications and everything he may need. Equine vets will talk to you on the phone and receive texts. When was the last time you sent a text to your doctor? How about never!
Why is there all this innovation in veterinary care that has taken decades to occur in human medical care? Well, there is no Medicare or Medicaid for dogs and cats to distort the veterinary clinic market. There are pet insurance companies, but pet insurance is not that common. About two thirds of Americans own a pet, or about 85 million families. Yet, only 3.1 million pets are covered by pet insurance. Of pets with insurance, 83% are dogs, while 17% are cats. That means that veterinarians are free to innovate without the worry that they won’t get paid.
Pet insurance is growing, however. The North American Pet Health Insurance Association reports average annual growth of about 23% for the past five years. With the growth in pet health coverage, so will costs, bureaucracy and dysfunction.