Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, president of the Idaho Humane Society, has seen an increase in the number of customers who cannot afford veterinary care. The increase is likely due to the surge in unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have the impression that the people who come in are under pressure depending on the situation – the hopefully temporarily poor,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “In terms of quality, we have the impression that we have many more people in our communities who cannot afford care.”
He sees similarities between what will happen now if people keep losing their jobs or unable to find work and what happened during the Great Recession.
“It is common practice that people on paper are not low on incomes but have no money. People come to us for urgent help and they ask for reduced costs. “
(Top left) A veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital cares for a patient. (Courtesy Mars Veterinary Health)
(Bottom left) A member of the VCA Animal Hospitals veterinary team conducts a telemedicine appointment. (Courtesy Mars Veterinary Health)
(Top and bottom right) Veterinarians meet with patients in May at a pop-up clinic at the San Diego Convention Center that served as an emergency shelter for over 1,000 homeless people and their pets. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Jon Geller)
Providing access to affordable veterinary care to pet owners with financial needs or limitations has always been a dilemma for veterinarians, but the problem has only grown more acute.
Nearly 40% of people who worked in February with an annual household income of less than $ 40,000 reported job losses in March, according to a Federal Reserve report released in May. The report is usually published annually to summarize the financial situation of US households. However, the Federal Reserve released an addendum in April asking people about the effects of COVID-19.
The overall unemployment rate in the US was just over 14% in April, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, during the Great Recession in 2008, the average annual unemployment rate in the US was 5.8%.
Dr. Kendall Houlihan, vice director of AVMA’s animal welfare division, said AVMA is committed to supporting the veterinary profession by discovering new ways to improve access to care.
“As COVID-19 continues, its health and financial repercussions continue to be felt by veterinarians and their customers,” she said. “This is why it is important for veterinarians to develop creative strategies when working with clients to provide veterinary care to our patients, including different approaches to care and discussing payment options for veterinary services provided.”
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AVMA, saw a modest increase in grant applications through its Veterinary Care Charitable Fund, a program that helps veterinarians provide services to clients in difficulty. The AVMF processed 90 grants in April.
Matthew Salois, PhD, chief economist in the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, said tools for affordable veterinary care should be communicated before a pet is in the exam room.
“Discounting is an option, but not ideal,” said Dr. Salois. “Instead, work with customers to educate them and help them understand other options, including deferred payments, advanced payment plans, and funding options such as preferential rate loans, and of course, there is pet insurance.”
Other organizations have also identified an increased need for financial support.
Nicole Forsyth, president and CEO of RedRover, an animal welfare organization, said the nonprofit is designed to help people and animals in crisis.
RedRover saw a significant increase in the number of applicants for its RedRover Relief Urgent Care program, a $ 200 emergency grant. The organization received 76 applications for the first quarter. RedRover currently receives over 100 applications per week.
Forsyth said it was clear the surge was related to the pandemic. “Most people mention COVID-19 on the application,” she said.
AlignCare, a subsidized veterinary program from the Animal Health Justice Program at the University of Tennessee, was rolled out in three cities prior to the pandemic. However, the need for cheaper care means the program expedites its operations.
Dr. Michael Blackwell, director of PPHE, told JAVMA News in May that AlignCare is working to expand to Long Island, New York. Las Vegas; Reno, Nevada; and certain areas of California.
“When we saw the growing impact of COVID-19, we decided to scale up,” he said.
AlignCare accepts inquiries from interested practices at the named locations. The program requires that an affiliated veterinary practice is willing to provide additional care, accept a reduced fee, work with a veterinary social worker, and use relevant technology if necessary.
Other organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals work to keep pets and families together.
Matt Bershadker, President and CEO of ASPCA, said: “Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many low-income pet owners faced challenges in accessing veterinary care for their pets, and the pandemic will only widen that gap as more families face financial problems . “
To address potential problems accessing care during the pandemic, the ASPCA has set up mobile clinics in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Asheville, North Carolina to provide urgent care to pets. The ASPCA treated more than 2,000 animals through these services from March 17 to mid-May.
ASPCA also launched the $ 5 million COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Initiative, which grants grants to animal welfare organizations in need and provides pet food to those in need.
“While some of our own services have been postponed or temporarily closed to the public due to COVID-19, we have expanded our work to meet the current needs of pet owners and the animal welfare community,” said Bershadker.
Weather the storm
Dr. Rosenthal said nonprofits are used to stepping up their efforts when the bigger society gets tough. This part is not new.
As organizations commit to assisting pet owners who face financial difficulties, concerns grow as to whether the outflow of assistance, including grants and financial aid, can continue forever.
A veterinary team from BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital provides roadside service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mars, which owns BluePearl, donated $ 1 million to Humane Society International in April to fund programs in countries hardest hit by COVID-19. (Courtesy Mars Veterinary Health)
Dr. Rosenthal said he has seen many changes in his 20 years with the Idaho Humane Society, but the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned many unknowns and new developments.
“In the long run, if the workload stays the same or higher, you run out of resources,” he said. “It has never happened like this before. That is new. It is unknown. “
Other relief efforts by organizations include:
- Stella & Chewy’s donated nearly US $ 530,000 worth of dog and cat food to ASPCA for pet owners affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- VCA Animal Hospitals is investing nearly $ 500,000 to support access to care for pet owners in financial distress, including free pet food for key human health workers.
- The Banfield Foundation, the Banfield Pet Hospital’s nonprofit organization, has launched a COVID-19 Response and Reconstruction Grant to support organizations that help pets receive care. As of April 1, the foundation has given more than $ 225,000 to organizations in the United States, including a $ 10,000 grant to the Pima Animal Care Center in Arizona to provide veterinary care to vulnerable pets. The foundation also covers 3,000-5,000 telemedicine calls for pet owners in need and works in partnership with shelter partners across the country.
- Mars donated $ 1 million to Humane Society International in April to help fund programs in countries hardest hit by COVID-19.
- The Petco Foundation distributed $ 13 million to animal welfare organizations, including a donation to regional food banks operated by the ASPCA.
- The NYC COVID-19 Pet Hotline went live in April to provide information and assistance for their pets to New York pet owners during the pandemic.
Homeless access, proactive
Many pet owners may face new financial difficulties, but homeless pet owners have always faced challenges related to access to care.
BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital veterinary staff are transporting a patient to hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Mars Veterinary Health)
Thanks to veterinarians like Dr. Jon Geller is available to help.
He is the founder of the Street Dog Coalition, a nonprofit that provides free pet care for the homeless in more than 40 cities across the United States. He and other volunteers met with patients in May at a pop-up veterinary clinic in the San Diego Convention Center that served as an emergency shelter for over 1,000 homeless people and their pets.
“It (the clinic) highlighted the need for more comprehensive care,” said Dr. Geller. “We’re trying to find money.”
He said there was emergency funding and grants, but he’s still looking for more veterinary clinics to work with him and other street vets.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the non-profit organization had to significantly reduce and adjust its street clinic services.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, volunteers had been working on a truck bed in the parking lot of a local homeless shelter. That was until a group of customers tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and even more so for norovirus. Instead, the volunteers used telemedicine to investigate urgent cases.
“Unfortunately, these distancing protocols contradict our values of direct human interaction, but they are obviously necessary for dependent pets,” according to the Street Dog Coalition website. “We’re working with our team leaders in other cities to develop secure protocols while prioritizing their security and that of their colleagues and families.”
While all communities continue to struggle with health and safety concerns due to COVID-19, Dr. Rosenthal optimistic about how the veterinary community will get out of the pandemic.
“These are the times when people prioritize their pets,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “It’s always good news and I know veterinarians are always hit by economic downturns, but the profession is resilient.”