No one better understands the value of the human-animal bond than veterinarians. But as small-business owners with considerable overhead invested, veterinarians know that good practice management calls for responsible fee collection.
Technological improvements increase pet owners’ expectations for good outcomes, though advanced procedures and care demand additional equipment and training, which also add to costs.
This is where third-party financing can help boost a veterinarian’s bottom line.
Practices can make financing available so that patients who don’t have insurance, cash or credit lines, or choose not to use them, can select and pay for the optimal treatment.
“The ability of veterinarians to care for pets has grown exponentially with the advancement and availability of technology,” says Mary Beth Leininger, DVM. “We can fix things we couldn’t fix before.”
Dr. Leininger is vice president of veterinary relations for ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, a subsidiary of the Hartville Group, with headquarters in Canton, Ohio.
“People have a strong connection to their pets,” she says. “They consider them members of the family. So when the pet needs treatment, it is not so much that we have to talk them into the procedure and the cost. I consider it my responsibility to help them find a way to afford to say yes to what their pet needs.”
Leininger was in private practice for 30 years and is a former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, so she speaks from compassion and experience of treating many companion animals at a discount or carrying financing for owners.
“In this economy, veterinarians may be experiencing a decline in patient visits,” she says. “Any way we can help them get pet owners to bring in their companion animals is good.”
She points out that third-party financing dovetails with pet insurance for a consumer-cost “safety net.”
“Pet insurance is different from third-party financing options, though the two can work closely together,” she says. “Ultimately, both financing options and pet insurance benefit veterinary practices, pet owners and pets by helping clients pay for needed veterinary care.”
When third-party financing and pet insurance are used together, Darryl Rawlings, CEO of Seattle-based Trupanion Pet Insurance, says clients might pay the initial bill with their financing option, then file a pet insurance claim to be reimbursed for covered services.
The client can then use the pet insurance reimbursement to pay the credit bill when it comes due.
Rawlings says the No. 1 reason that more consumers are depending on third-party financing is its availability during the current credit crunch.
“With a tough economy and tightened credit markets, money is less available than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “Third-party (veterinary care) financing is an alternative to credit cards or a credit line that’s not accessible anymore.”
He said people will always find the money for “aggregate spending for chew toys and dog treats, veterinary care and proper food.”
“But if something unexpected happens,” he says, “they need financing and/or pet insurance to get treatment for their pets.”
Leininger says that veterinarians have the opportunity to recommend that pet owners prepare for risk.
“We need to talk about financing alternatives more often, and make sure brochures are always available, especially before owners actually need the services,” she says.
“Pet owners who have had other pets with serious problems are usually likely candidates for financing and insurance programs,” she adds.
As alternatives to loans, third-party financing gives pet owners affordable payments to cover a variety of veterinary procedures. Some plans are no-interest and offer extended payment programs.
With this financing, the pet owner can see the payment terms offered and what monthly costs will be, says Steve O’Halloran, public affairs director for ChaseHealthAdvance of Wilmington, Del., so they know what they will pay each month from beginning to end.
“Practices should take into account how disclosures, terms and conditions are provided to the pet owner and how monthly payments are billed,” he cautions. “Veterinary providers should consider working with a third-party financing company that bills the pet owner in equal monthly payments and discloses those terms up front on the purchase receipt.”
Another plus: “(With financing), veterinarians are able to care for patients without discounting the services they work so hard to provide,” says Leininger.
“Credit cards that provide access to veterinary care may be used as payment options for certain expenses not covered by insurance or to bridge payment when desired care exceeds insurance coverage,” says Judith Gass, marketing director of CareCredit, with headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif. “A revolving line of credit enables consumers to care for their pets while they plan, budget and pay over time.
“Veterinary providers can focus on diagnosing and delivering quality care, and making sure the pet owner understands the recommendation, by lessening the financing and administrative tasks that come with managing their own payment plans,” she continues.
About half the veterinary hospitals in the United States offer some form of financing to their patients, financing companies estimate.
Third-party financers offer training on presenting financing products to patients, as well as ongoing support for plan details, fraud prevention, terms and disclosures.
Another option is in-house financing for direct billing.
“If a pet needs emergency care after hours, including life-saving surgery, and owners can’t pay for it, the vet is forced to turn them away, and that affects incremental revenues and profits,” says Bob Richardson, president of ExtendCredit.com of Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Many veterinarians who would otherwise have to decline business from financially or credit score-challenged customers are extending credit to them via in-house financing plans, a trend that is becoming popular, Richardson says.
“In the past, in-house financing was frowned upon by industry experts,” Richardson says. “However, most will admit that was primarily due to not having an organized, risk-based process that helps veterinarians easily manage their risk while still providing credit to help their customers.”
With in-house financing, the veterinarian controls terms offered and who gets approved, Richardson says. “And financing companies provide all the tools needed to be successful, manage risk, stay in control, and fully comply with lending laws.
“Fully automated online service makes it easy for veterinarians to create and manage their own payment plans,” he says. “This increases the likelihood they’ll be paid in full, but also encourages owners to get their pets treated now.
“For pet owners,” he continues, “being provided in-house financing is faster than going to the bank and attempting to secure a loan, especially in this down economy with more limited credit availability.”
And if the pet owner should need additional services, these can be quickly and easily added to the current loan with the payments readjusted.
These payments, Richardson says, can be negotiated between the vet and the pet owner to create a “win-win” solution that meets both their needs.