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Money and Pets: Q&A with Access Veterinary Care

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Last year, Gregory Frahm-Gilles and his colleagues founded Minneapolis-based Access Veterinary Care to provide “exceptional veterinary care that is approachable, affordable and accessible.”

Veterinarian Dr. Jenna Buley is Access Veterinary Care’s director of medical services, Gregory directs business operations and his husband, veterinarian William Frahm-Gilles, serves as the executive director of their medical foundation. Together, they are demonstrating that people in all financial circumstances are capable of caring for their pets responsibly and affordably, even in the face of rising medical costs.

We asked them how all pet owners can take the best care of their pets within their financial constraints.

Why did you start Access Veterinary Care?

In a 2016 economic report, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimated that only about half of pets in the United States have access to regular veterinary care. But if you talk to veterinary practice owners, many will talk about the challenges of running a successful business, both justifying their fees and trying to find ways to increase them where they can.

This dichotomy didn’t sit well with us, as there are a massive number of families that can’t access veterinary care. We determined that part of the problem is an inefficient business model.  With Access Veterinary Care, we have shown that you can have low fees, have a successful business and still make a decent living as a professional.

You and your colleagues started Access Veterinary Care with the belief that there is no financial requirement to be a good pet owner. What do you mean by this?

A family’s financial status is a lengthy and complicated thing. It’s important that those considering getting a new pet know that there are significant costs that will be coming, but it’s short-sighted to simply say that “poor people shouldn’t have pets.” Maybe the family was in a stable financial position when they first got the pet and then fell on hard times. Or maybe the pet belonged to someone else, like a family member who couldn’t take care of it anymore. Or the animal was in rough shape, abandoned and hungry, so someone with limited means was willing to share what little they had with an animal. Or someone was reliant on another’s income that is no longer there (widowed, divorced, a domestic abuse survivor, etc.). It’s so easy to expect that everyone should open up their wallets wide for their pets, but you can’t forget the people that are attached to those pets and their stories.

We believe that three main things need to be provided: food, water and love.  Beyond that, we all just do the best we can.

What are the kinds of financial obligations that people think prevent them from being good pet owners?

This is really on an individual level. For some, staying on top of vaccinations is a challenge. For others, it’s being surprised by a major surgery that they can’t easily afford. We do our best to separate the concept of a “good pet owner” from finances entirely. You can be a good pet owner and have no money at all.

In addition to the list of resources on your website, what kinds of options do you provide pet owners facing financial challenges?

We have two main differentiators. First, our efficient business model allows for our costs to remain below market, bringing care within reach for many that can’t afford it elsewhere. Second, we use a very practical approach to care.

Everyone knows the old phrase, “Take two of these and call me in the morning” with visions of a 1920s doctor making house calls. While the diagnostics have gotten better, sometimes keeping it simple (and affordable) is the best approach. When more advanced testing is necessary, we are fully set up for that, too.

We also promise our time. For those in financial distress, we will always do a complimentary physical exam or medically necessary euthanasia. It’s important to us that families have the opportunity to at least talk to someone about their concerns and see if we can use our expertise to shed some light on an issue. And, when an animal is suffering and euthanasia is the best option, we do not want finances to be a barrier for a peaceful passing.

Finally, the “All Access Pass” is our subscription plan, letting families easily budget with regular monthly payments. For those on fixed incomes, disability or assistance programs, saving up for large vet bills can be hard or impossible. Our subscription plans can help smooth out some of the bumps.

What should pet owners look for (or ask about) when searching for a veterinarian who can work with them to accommodate their financial circumstances?

Money has become such a taboo subject for many. We embrace it and encourage others to do the same. Talk money with prospective vets and see how they handle it. If they are open, honest and respectful, then you are off to a good start. If they are cagey or disregard your personal financial situation, then keep looking.

Also, take a look to see how much pricing information is readily available for you to discover on your own. It’s not asking too much to know what kind of hit your wallet will take. If I want to try a new restaurant, I often look online to find the menu and check their prices.  Vet care doesn’t have to be different.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

Pets are expensive, and they will get hurt or sick at the worst possible time. If you can prepare for it, do so. If you can’t, that’s okay too. Do your research, ask the tough questions of a prospective veterinarian and talk to people.

You likely have friends or family with pets. What is their experience with their vet? If money is tight, call rescue organizations like the Humane Society to find low-cost providers or information on upcoming vaccination drives.

Most importantly, please separate money from the concept of “good pet owner.”  Respect that people are doing the best that they can. As long as there is plenty of love, that pet has a pretty good life.