DennisBeaverSeptember 28, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

Today’s story will be of special interest to readers with four-legged family members and began with a phone call from Samantha, a 20-year-old administration of justice major at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.

“I took my little kitty to a pet hospital in Fresno because she was very sick, but before they would even look at her, I had to pay them $65 for the exam and sign a contract agreeing to pay for further care if necessary.

“Later that day, the doctor phoned, informing me that the cat had pneumonia with a 50/50 survival chance and explained that treatment could easily run over $500. I love my cat and would have felt so guilty if I let her die, so I agreed to treatment.

“The next day, she died and they have sent me a bill for $350. I can’t afford to pay it! They knew that I was very emotional at the time. I don’t think I owe the money and should be refunded what I paid because the cat would have died regardless of what they did for her.

“My parents say that I am wrong, but suggested that I speak with you, because ‘he tells it like it is.’ Do I owe this money? Why should I pay if my cat died? Shouldn’t they have realized how upset I was and refused to accept her as a patient?

“Isn’t it true that if I had no money, they would have to treat my cat for free, just like when a person who has no money goes to the emergency room. Do you have any advice?”

And you are majoring in the administration of justice?

There is a commonly held belief which is completely wrong about the “right” to free veterinary services, but before we go there, Samantha’s attitude revealed something which had to be dealt with.

Over the years, this column has received similar inquiries which reveal a giant gap in that area of the brain which governs right and wrong, and basic fairness. We have never feared, as Samantha stated, “telling it like it is,” and this was the time for it.

“Advice, Samantha, yes, we’ve got advice. You need to grow up and accept the consequences of your decisions. By trying to justify what amounts to theft of the veterinarian’s services, you are starting out adult life on the road to failure both personal and financial.

“You are an administration of justice major. The key word is justice. Aware of the risks and cost, and telling the doctor to treat, created a contract. This became a moral obligation, an ethical duty to keep your word. What’s at stake is your reputation.

“So, pay the bill and it would make me very happy to see a copy of the check that you send to the doctor. That’s my recommendation.”

No right to free veterinary care

We discussed Samantha’s situation with Hanford veterinarians Drs. Lee Fausett and Rhett Swasey, asking how big a problem is the belief in the right to free veterinary care. As we would learn, it’s a real challenge for vets and their staff.

“In our country, anyone can go to the emergency room and obtain treatment without a worry about paying the bill. If you have no money or insurance, society absorbs those costs. A lot of people cannot afford insurance, yet many others can, but choose not to and take advantage of society’s generosity, which today is overwhelming emergency rooms when they do not have a primary care physician,” Fausett said.

“Partly due to this free access to medical care, many people expect veterinarian care to be the same, occasionally becoming upset or angry when we expect payment to see their pet or do an exam,” Swasey said.

“Often there can be a trauma of some type, and pet owners expect us to provide the same level of care as in an emergency room and do not understand that veterinarians have no such legal or ethical requirement — and just can’t afford to without being paid.

“While the people who receive care may not be the ones paying for it, doctors and hospitals are still being paid by the government, state or counties. But there is no such payment mechanism for veterinarians, so that if we are not paid by the pet owner or pet insurance, hundreds to thousands of dollars for treatment, medication, lab, technology and staff time is completely lost,” he stressed.

There are ways of assuring a high level of care for your pet without breaking the bank, and next time we’ll tell you how, as well as help pet owners deal with one of the most difficult decisions about that loving, four-legged member of the family.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.