High cost of veterinary care at major chains causing pets to be unnecessarily euthanised, senior vets say

© Provided by ABC Business Dan Blackwell travelled interstate with his dog Angel after being quoted up to $8,000 for surgery for his pet. (Supplied)

Senior veterinarians say it is cheaper for some pet owners to travel interstate for their pet’s surgery than attend major vet chains and referral hospitals who charge high fees and, in some cases, offer staff commission for invoicing additional services.

Brisbane-based vet Scot Plummer said the rise of veterinary chains and the shift from all-purpose vets to a focus on referrals and specialisation had changed the structure of the industry and the cost of modern pet care was causing animals to be unnecessarily put down.

“The whole underlying issue is we euthanase animals purely because of cost,” Dr Plummer said.

“There’s no Medicare for pets — you pay, or they die. And if demand is there you can keep pushing prices because no-one is pushing back, it’s only going to go one way.”

Dr Plummer and his business partner Damien MacGinley — who have 53 years of industry experience between them — said some clients had travelled from as far away as Darwin and the New South Wales southern highlands to visit their clinic because it was cheaper than attending one of the major chains, despite the added cost of interstate travel.

Dan Blackwell said he travelled from southern NSW with his dog Angel to Dr Plummer’s clinic when he was faced with a surgery bill between $5,000 and $8,000.

He said there was “no real guarantee that [the surgery] wasn’t going to have complications and be more expensive”.

Instead, he drove interstate and paid Dr Plummer $3,000 for Angel’s surgery.

Dr MacGinley said overcharging in after-hours centres was common practice.

“People have come in having been in an emergency practice the night before, having spent $1,200 on a dog that has vomiting and diarrhoea,” Dr MacGinley said.

“They haven’t actually treated the dog with anything and they come to you having spent all their money.

“You do one simple test like a rectal smear, get the cytology, and look at the bacteria — there’s your problem: the dog’s got food poisoning.”

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) said compared to human medicine the variability in vet fees was “very apparent to the consumer” due to a lack of government subsidisation.

Magdoline Awad is the chief veterinary officer at Greencross — a growing vet chain with more than 170 clinics. She said there were several challenges facing the vet industry, including a skills shortage.

“All our practitioners are facing daily pressure similar to what we’re seeing in many other parts of the healthcare system and there aren’t enough vets in Australia to fill the current demand in this sector,” Dr Awad said.

“This is driven largely by the increased number of pets in Australia since the start of the pandemic.”

The rise of corporate vet clinics

Dr Plummer said many retiring vets were opting to sell their practices to bigger vet chains such as Greencross and VetPartners, which meant a change in how pets and their owners were handled and charged.

He said previously many vets performed surgeries but now vet clinics largely acted as funnels to vet hospitals and after-hours clinics.

The rise of Greencross, owned by TPG Capital, and VetPartners, owned by German private equity firm JAB Holdings – has a strong presence over the industry.

Greencross also owns referral hospitals and each acquisition sees clinics re-branded to become part of a network of clinics.

Greencross also owns pet supplies giant Petbarn as well as 10 Animal Emergency Centres (AEC) across the nation, including four in south-east Queensland.

VetPartners operates 197 clinics and referral hospitals but unlike Greencross, VetPartners operate under a “join us, stay you” model, where clinics keep their name and staff but operate within the VetPartners system.

Research from think-tank IBISWorld compared investing in a veterinary clinic as equivalent to a blue chip stock in their “Veterinary Services in Australia” report published in June this year.

IBISWorld projected the revenue of the veterinary industry to be $3.7 billion this year — a growth of $1.2 billion from 2012/13 when it pulled in $2.5 billion.

The IBISWorld research showed the industry would steadily concentrate over the next five years, and clinics would likely boost revenue through “value-added services and increasing prices”.

Staff commission for extra services a ‘moral bind’

Multiple sources confirmed to the ABC that it was not uncommon for after-hours clinics to link commissions to services they invoiced.

Chris Jensen, a retired vet of 47 years, said “there is absolutely no doubt that at some after-hours centres”.

“They have incentives for the staff to charge people as much as possible. A lot of them will get a financial reward for what they generate above their salary,” Dr Jensen said.

However, Dr Awad said Greencross vets were “not remunerated by commission within our GP or emergency practices and compensation is certainly not a driver of clinical decisions”.

A spokesperson for VetPartners said staff at clinics across Australia operated under a salary-based remuneration model.

The AVA said while they provided education for business models for appropriate remuneration of staff, clinics chose “the system which works best for their business”.

Dr Plummer said he was “shocked” by the concept of financial reward for add-on services as it provided a clear incentive to overcharge.

Richard Burchell, a Sunshine Coast vet who worked in an after-hours centre that commissioned its vets, said it put him in a moral bind.

“I can remember having a client I knew very well, and I knew she was wealthy. I knew that I could do the procedure after hours and earn commission on it, or I could wait until Monday, and I wouldn’t earn commission on it,” Dr Burchell said.

“I ended up waiting and doing it on Monday, because I didn’t want it to be a case of me doing it then to make money on it — it must be a case of what’s best for this dog.”

Dr Burchell said he believed people needed to be rewarded for hard work but a commissioning system “puts people in a difficult position”.

“If I did it, I felt maybe I was doing it for commission, but if I didn’t do it, I felt maybe it was because I didn’t want it to appear that way.”

Greencross vets have ‘clinical autonomy’

One former Greencross vet alleged that in early 2020 vets were told at a meeting attended by numerous regional managers not to extract animal’s teeth even when necessary, but to instead “just scale them, then tell the client that the gums need time to heal after the scale, and re-book and re-quote for three weeks … This way we can charge for two anaesthetics”.

However, Ms Awad said Greencross staff made decisions “based on their clinical judgement”.

“When performing dental surgery, the full extent of the procedure is only known after the animal is placed under anaesthesia, a full examination of the mouth is performed, and dental radiographs are taken and evaluated,” she said.

“Our veterinarians may decide to stage a dental procedure over a couple of anaesthetics based on their clinical judgement once they know the extent of the disease process.

“Clients are then able to make an informed decision regarding their pet’s treatment … All our vets have clinical autonomy to manage their patients as we would expect of any medical professional.”

Help for cash-strapped pet owners

A new service known as Vets on Call employs veterinarians to practice in people’s homes and is being heralded a game changer for both vets and pets alike.

Without the cost of a premises to rent and only using equipment that fits inside a car, the organisation operates with much lower overheads.

Dr Noriel Williams works for Vets on Call and said the service offered her more shift flexibility, a better work-life balance and was also a cheaper service for pet owners.

In addition, the Animal Welfare League Queensland (AWLQ) – a not-for-profit organisation started 60 years ago by a group of volunteers – provides low-cost veterinary services for cash-strapped pet owners.

John Gilmore has worked at AWLQ for more than two decades and said people could attend “regardless if they have absolutely no money, and we will provide care for their pet”.

“We consider their cases on a case-by-case basis. Often we provide either complete or partial charity,” Dr Gilmore said.

Kirsty Waye took her five-month-old puppy Lola to AWLQ when she was diagnosed with tetanus – a costly health issue that can last for weeks.

Ms Waye said AWLQ offered her financial help within the first week and she felt lucky her family was spared the heartbreak of losing Lola simply because they could not afford the treatment to save her life.

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