Recession stokes the fire
James Bias has been involved in the private nonprofit side of low-cost veterinary care since 1980. He's currently chairman
of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators and serves as president and CEO of three private nonprofit hospitals in the
Dallas area. He cites some areas of the country where good relationships exist between private practitioners and low-cost
providers. "But that's not the norm," he says.
"Practitioners, particularly in the last couple of years, have seen a decrease in revenue," he says. "Now they're looking
around and saying, 'What might be impacting this?' Certainly the economy is one factor. Visits to private practices are down.
But the other factor is clients who are still seeking medical service but going to private nonprofits for a lower price point."
Martha Smith, DVM, is past president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and director of veterinary medical services
at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. She imagines nearly the same question on the minds of private practitioners during
the current slow-bottoming recession. "Unfortunately," she says, "many pet owners consider veterinary care to be one of the
elastic things that, when times are tough, you have to let slide. Veterinarians are feeling the pinch, especially in the number
of appointments, so they're looking around and asking, 'Well, if I'm not seeing my clients, who is?'"
Increasingly, she says, the answer is low-cost alternative clinics. "With the professionalization of sheltering, we're seeing
more shelters saying, 'We have veterinarians on staff; they can also prevent relinquishment of animals by helping keep them
at home. Why don't we have an affordable clinic?'" she says. The shelter impulse, she explains, is to think of expanded services
as "preventive medicine": Improving the health of animals in poor families means those pets are less likely to be relinquished.
Some quantitative measures are showing that the number of low-cost veterinary service providers is on the rise. For example,
membership in the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators grew dramatically in 2011. The group's annual report noted 63 new
executives, 116 new managers, 23 new associates and an 18 percent increase in membership in the United States, Canada, Australia
and India. Bias sees another important change. His organization and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have
traded speakers at their annual events. "The dialogue is starting to happen," he says. "Both sides need to keep that fire
stoked. The shelters want the people they help to have a relationship with a veterinarian, and the veterinarian potentially
gets a client. It's win-win."
But he admits that this might be a tough sell in the current economic environment. "We'll have to get creative on what that
relationship will look like," he says. A few years ago, he recalls, SPCA of Texas took over another private nonprofit spay-neuter
clinic in south Dallas. A private practitioner in the area called him to say the clinic "is putting me out of business. My
clients think I'm gouging them because your prices are so much lower." Bias says he listened to the practitioner—something
he suggests both sides do more often—and came up with a creative solution. Thinking about how charity hospitals work, he began
framing the services at his low-cost clinic around the concept of co-pays. Clients who utilized the clinic were told that
a spay cost $200 but their co-pay would be $25. The remainder would be made up by grants and donations.
"People understand that phraseology on the human side," he explains. "And our veterinarians who worked for us appreciated
it because they aren't doing discount work."
Alas, the co-pay idea was abandoned later because it created accounting and software problems, Bias says. And he's not sure
it helped smooth the feathers of local practitioners. "The point," he says, "is that we need the willingness to learn what
each side is trying to accomplish and make adjustments."