By sheer coincidence, I had my twice yearly dental cleaning on Tuesday-the
same day that I took my 12 year old cat to the vet to have his teeth cleaned.
The bill for my cleaning was $115.00. Karma’s was $598.01. This is
not really a fair comparison because, unlike me, who white knuckled it
through the scraping and polishing, Karma had to be anesthetized. For Karma
there was pre –surgery blood work, an electrocardiogram, cardiac
monitoring, and pain control. And he had goopy ears-my vet determined the
nature of the goop and cleaned them- as service that Vicki, my dental hygienist,
did not undertake in regards to my own ears. And to be fair, Karma’s
teeth were much worse than mine-I brush and floss-he won’t.
While many of my friends and family would be aghast that I shelled out
almost $600.00 to have my cat’s teeth cleaned, let me be clear that
I do not begrudge the animal hospital a penny. Karma is a fine little pussy
cat that has been a part of my life for a long time, I would not want any
corners cut that would jeopardize his well being. But what I find incredibly
hypocritical is that when I am in the unenviable position of taking on
a veterinarian for malpractice, which occurs more often than I wish, the
lawyers for those same veterinarians that are happy to collect $600 for
a kitty dental, or $3,000 for a hip replacement will argue that “like
it or not your honor, animals are property under the law and even if my
client was negligent, poor Mrs. Jones is only entitled to the fair market
value of Boots.” Vets charge like our pets are “members of
the family” but when their own negligence results in their non-human
patient’s death, they insist that your pet should be valued like
a sofa or toaster oven and that the grieving pet owner should be entitled
to replacement value only.
Karma is a rather unremarkable looking solid black cat, thousands of which
await new homes in animal shelters nationwide. The average adoption fee
for an adult neutered domestic shorthair cat is about $65.00. Obviously
it would have been much more cost effective to replace Karma with a new
cat than to have his teeth cleaned. But of course I did not even consider
that option, because Karma is a unique individual with a personality of
his own. There will never be another cat quite like Karma, to whom my emotional
attachment motivates me to provide needed veterinary care at a price far
in excess of his “fair market value.”
Veterinarians and their insurers are vehemently opposed to any legislation
that would explicitly allow a pet owner to collect more than the fair market
value of a negligently killed pet. They rhetorically spout a parade of
future horrible that paralyzes even the most animal friendly of law makers.
Malpractice premiums will soar, which of course vets must pass on to their
clients, thereby pricing the average Joe right out of pet ownership. Vets
will have to do all sorts of currently unneeded diagnostic tests just to
cover their asses, and the courthouse steps will be clogged with greedy
attorneys anxious to file frivolous suits and collect their whopping share
of the astronomical verdicts to be awarded to allegedly grieving pet owners.
It will be the end of the world as we know it.
For a little reality in response to “the sky is going to fall” scenario,
I would point to the well measured work of a handsome young lawyer named
Christopher Green, who in his last year at Harvard Law School scrutinized
the veterinary community’s repeated assertion that valuing pets as
more than a used sofa will cause insurance premiums to sky rocket. His
research revealed that, as of 2003, the average price of basic liability
coverage was $147, and for $41 more, small animal veterinarians could increase
their policy limit to the highest coverage tier of $1,000,000 per claim
and $3,000,000 in total annual claims. He found that the price for veterinary
malpractice insurance had not risen once in over a decade, and that premiums
actually dropped in each of the two prior years. According to Green, adjust
for inflation and the average price of veterinary liability insurance was
actually 44% lower in 2003 than in 1989. This price decrease was
verified by the country’s largest veterinary liability insure, ABD
Veterinary malpractice premiums are cheap because the handful of awards
in veterinary malpractice cases have been nowhere near the available policy
liability limits, and therefore insurance companies have little or no risk
when issuing policies, no matter how incompetent their insured. The largest
verdict in a veterinary malpractice case ever was $39,000; most are only
a small fraction of that.
By dividing the average premium by the average number of clients per veterinarian,
Green found that American pet owners were each paying less than 12¢ a
year for their portion of veterinary malpractice insurance coverage. ABD
Insurance, focusing on California, calculated exactly how much they would
have to increase veterinary liability premiums if emotional damages for
companion animal loss were allowed, and capped at $25,000. Each veterinarian’s
annual premiums would about double, rising by $212. By dividing the predicted
price increase by the average number of clients per veterinarian, each
pet owner’s annual veterinary costs would increase by less than 13¢,
going from less that 12¢ a year to almost a whole quarter a year.
The 13¢ rise in the cost of annual veterinary care is hardly enough
to price anyone out of pet ownership.
Of course that predicted 13¢ rise is with a $25,000 damage cap. Green
points out that even if each veterinarian’s liability insurance premium
increased to 10 times its current amount, if this increase is divided by
the number of each veterinarian’s clients, it adds up to an average
annual care cost increase of $1.15 per pet household. Even if veterinary
liability insurance rates truly skyrocketed by 100 times their current
level (an amount that is 3 times what the average human family practitioner
pays for malpractice coverage), that total premium would result in a veterinary
care cost increase of $11.50 per pet owning household per year.
Unfortunately, regardless of the truth, groups like the FVMA and AVMA
have powerful lobbyists that have made the “premiums will sky rocket” rhetoric
their mantra, and our legislators fall for it hook line and sinker. Holding
veterinarians accountable for their mistakes is as popular a notion as
making nun-beating an Olympic event.
Veterinarians make their living only because there is a special bond between
a companion animal and his or her guardian. But for that bond, people would
go get a new cat or dog rather than pay for a dental or a hip replacement
or even an annual wellness exam with vaccines. And if you are going to
make a living off that bond you’ve got a lot of nerve to turn around
and denigrate it the moment something goes wrong.