VPI Price Study Contradicts U.S. Numbers

U.S. veterinarians charged more for wellness visits but less for medical care over a five-year period, insurance claims show.

The average visit cost $244 at urban veterinary clinics, according to VPI insurance claim data. The numbers at suburban and rural hospitals were $208 and $197, respectively.

AVMA

Is the cost of veterinary care rising or falling? It depends.

The U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index for the years 2009 to 2013 revealed veterinary inflation of 15 percent.

Veterinary Pet Insurance of Brea, Calif., provided Purdue University economists with millions of customer insurance claims and learned that prices actually declined by 1 percent over the same period.

Why the discrepancy? The answer is a mystery, but VPI executives have some theories.

“The difference … is that our singular focus was to analyze veterinary pricing trends based on more than 5.3 million actual medical claims rather than a few hundred phone surveys, providing us a much clearer look at these trends,” President Scott Liles said.

VPI’s chief veterinary officer, Carol McConnell, DVM, MBA, suggested that some veterinarians may have chosen to give clients a break.

“It could be the associate vet saying, ‘I feel so bad for Mrs. Johnson, I’m not going to charge her the list price. I’m going to look for something a little less expensive on the price sheet,’” Dr. McConnell said.

She also gave the example of a canine ear infection—a frequent problem—and how a veterinarian may rely on experience to omit a diagnostic step or two.

Traditionally, “You have an exam and an ear swab and have someone look under the microscope to verify that it’s yeast overgrowth and all that, and then you prescribe Otomax,” McConnell said.

“We knew consumers were really cautious with their money [during the recession],” she noted. “Did we start treating ear infections without doing a full workup? Are we skipping the swab and the microscope and going straight to the Otomax because we’re trying to get that bill a little lower so she can still get that diagnosis of otitis externa but the dog gets the medication and we’re done?

“Or is it that Otomax works so well that people stop doing the ear swab because they know, ‘I don’t even have to go through the trouble. Otomax is such a great drug, it’s effective. I don’t have to do all my usual diagnostics.’”

The results of the Nationwide/Purdue Veterinary Price Index were not the same across the board. Prices for wellness services climbed by 8 percent, according to the data, but medical care bills dropped by 2 percent.

The overall 1 percent decline was a weighted average because three-fourths of what customers submitted claims for was medical care and the rest was wellness-related. In addition, all the patients were dogs, the bulk of VPI’s business.

Regional differences were discovered. The value of insurance claims fell by 3.1 percent in the western United States, compared with declines of 1.6 percent in the Midwest, 0.5 percent in the South and 0.2 percent in the Northwest.

The average visit in the West ran $225, the most in the nation. Because of the higher invoices, those practitioners may have applied more downward pressure, McConnell said.

For whatever reason, veterinarians didn’t hesitate to raise prices on wellness services.

“You can’t blame the product manufacturers for this,” McConnell said. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, those flea and tick guys are bumping up the prices.’ This is veterinarians choosing to raise [the price of] their wellness exam.”

VPI, a subsidiary of the Nationwide conglomerate, isn’t done crunching numbers with Purdue’s Krannert School of Management. Quarterly updates are planned, and the next one will look at veterinary pricing for VPI’s feline patients.

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