Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Payment Plans and Responsibility

Hardly any vets will allow arrangements where pet owners pay back the cost of treatment over a period of time, for the simple reason that too many people never pay back the full amount.

Our animal clinic is run in association with Cambridge University Vet School, and they charge pet owners for most operations direct, at prices which reflect the learning value to students of the opportunity to watch the process. This usually works out at roughly a third of what a private vet would charge (and is subsidised by us and by the University). Unfortunately, a third of £600 is still a lot of money for someone who is on benefit, and the Vet School used to offer payment plans so that owners could pay back a small amount each week. Like the private vets, they found that there were too many bad debts for the scheme to continue - money is tight and Universities are being pressed to pay their way like everyone else.

We're now left with the conundrum of what to do about the existing debtors. The School have a list and theoretically can refuse their animals any further treatment until the debt is paid. If we don't make some attempt to get everyone to pay it isn't fair on those who do make an effort and live on bread and jam until their animals' treatment is paid for. The non-payers have already cost the rest the payment plan option. It's also pretty unfair on the volunteer helpers and clinic staff when one of the people on the list turns up and makes a scene because they're not allowed to register more animals until they've paid. Further knock-on effects are less money for the School to employ enough nurses, so fewer in-patients can be admitted, and so on.

I've asked for a breakdown of the total amount owed by RSPCA clients and left unpaid. In the interest of maintaining a high standard of service, we may have to offer to make a one-off payment to reduce the debt. We'll also be looking to write to all the outstanding debtors to explain that their actions have caused the withdrawal of the payment plan option for operations.

£200 is a lot of money. Probably the single most effective thing the individual owner of a female dog can do to reduce her risk of needing such an operation is to have her spayed during the first few years of life. Spaying costs £35 at our clinic and up to £150 at a private vet. It eliminates the risk that she will need an emergency pyometria operation (£200-£700) later in life and greatly reduces the risk of breast tumours.

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