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Unintended Consequences

There’s no denying it: stuff is expensive. These days, even cheap stuff is expensive. Who can blame us for going to the big box store to save a nickel, or trolling for a discount on Little Fido’s prescription?

Big companies have zeroed in on the veterinary drug market as a place to amass substantial profits. It’s easy for them to offer discounted prescriptions because the big companies provide none of the services associated with creating and maintaining those prescriptions.

Nowadays anyone with a warehouse and fax machine can set up an Internet pharmacy. Here’s how it works: BigBoxCo sets up a website advertising discounted prescriptions for pets. You click a few buttons and BigBoxCo contacts your veterinarian by fax. A few days later, your prescription arrives. What a great deal!

What a great deal for BigBoxCo: Your veterinarian provides the paper and ink (no small expense) for the fax machine, and must pay a staff member to look up your pet’s file. Your veterinarian then spends time reviewing your pet’s file and making legally required medical record notations before signing the prescription form and paying a staff member to fax it back to BigBoxCo.

Your veterinarian pays the entire expense of providing office and medical recordkeeping services, providing paper, ink, computer hardware, telephone, Internet access, and data storage – and all of this on top of the uncompensated expense of the doctor’s time and legal liability involved when making a prescription. Yes, there’s a lot of time and expense involved in filling these prescriptions, all of which is borne by your veterinarian, while BigBoxCo reaps the profit.

Because BigBoxCo provides no service (see what happens when you call them with a question about your pet’s medicine!) and has only miniscule overhead (a warehouse, a mail room, and a small number of employees) they can offer your pet’s medications at a lower mark-up, but far higher profit margin than your local veterinarian. Meanwhile, your veterinarian is required by law to bear all the hidden expenses and liabilities involved with making and managing your pet’s prescription. Yes, BigBoxCo gets a heck of a deal.

But you, the consumer, get a better deal too. Right?

I don’t think so. Does anyone believe, even for a second, that you aren’t paying for the hidden services required to make and manage Little Fido’s prescription?

Once upon a time, veterinarians relied upon pharmacy sales to support the local veterinary hospital’s overhead costs. The mark-up on drugs helped pay rent and utility bills. Ultimately, by contributing to the support of essential hospital infrastructure, the pharmacy profit center allowed veterinarians to offer medical and surgical services to your pets at a lower cost.

But not anymore: As more consumers choose big box and Internet sources for pharmacy items, veterinary managers have no choice but to increase fees for the things that you are unable to purchase on-line. The result has been an inexorable increase in the price pet owners must pay for professional veterinary services. It should come as no surprise to anyone that this is so: the costs of rent and utilities and insurance – and every other commodity needed to provide health care for pets – continues to increase year by year, even as local veterinary hospital income sources are increasingly diverted to distant and impersonal mega-corporations.

Neither pets nor pet owners are well served by this change. Your veterinarian, who knows you and your pets on a first name basis, cannot begin to compete with BigBoxCo and the Internet pharmacy giants who skim the cream from the veterinary drug market. The local veterinarian is increasingly left to survive on dregs, with no option but to charge you in full measure for the rising cost of veterinary services that you simply cannot obtain through a web site or mega-store.

This is not the kind of veterinary care market that anyone consciously desires. Yet it needs to be understood: When consumers – like yourself – starve local care providers of income in order to save a few nickels and dimes, you are promoting a change in the way veterinary care is provided that you do not want and that does not serve your needs or the needs of your pets.

Your choices have consequences. If you choose to support your local veterinary care provider, they will be there to support you with the kind of immediate and personal care that you want for your pets – and wish you could obtain for yourself. Think about this next time you’re tempted to troll the Internet for cheap medicine.

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