UK: have you fallen victim to runaway vets’ bills due to corporate ownership?

In the UK, since 1999 non-vets have been allowed to own veterinary practices. This lead to private equity businesses buying into vet’s clinics. They spotted a nice earner. In retrospect it looks like a bad mistake because when the men in grey suits manage these sorts of businesses, which require a lot of sensitivity and a dose of altruism, it is a bad fit.

Cat at a veterinary clinic
Cat at a veterinary clinic. Photo: Pixabay.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The corporate brigade have to focus on making good profits whereas when a vet clinic is independently owned by the vet partners who work there the focus is more on providing a good service from which reasonable profits flow.

So, there are runaway veterinary prices in the UK because half the vets’ practices are now owned by corporations and equity hedge funds; distant, faceless people driving BMWs trying to squeeze the clinics dry.

In the words one vet: “Corporate veterinary business people, who are not vets, have hijacked our profession and are milking it dry in true neoliberal-style.”

Vicki Issott’s experience amply illustrates the problem. She was used to paying £34 for a consultation fee when her vet was independent. It was taken over by IVC Evidensia which owns 993 vet practices in the UK. It is owned by private equity group EQT.

Her cat Bones had a blocked urethra. She was quoted to £220 for an out-of-hours consultation. Or she could come back the next morning for £173. She called other vets but they all use the same out-of-hours company so she had no choice. Bones underwent a procedure to clear a blocked urethra. There was a list of 18 separate charges and the total came to £1045.09 p. It was an emergency situation which clearly put the price up but it was unsuccessful and Bones was euthanised.

IVC said that they set prices for procedures and drugs centrally but the treatment and pricing decisions are made at the local veterinary level. However, turnover targets have an impact on pricing. One veterinarian at an IVC practice said: “[They] want to see rising profits every year.”

Some practices have resisted putting up prices. The RCVS have no jurisdiction over pricing and their code of conduct applies to veterinary behaviour rather than the business. They justify higher prices because of out of hours staffing costs.

Dr. Bruce Fogle, the principal vet at The London Veterinary Clinic in Marylebone, London, said: “I am an independent practice and I am being approached weakly by one of the corporates or an accumulator who wants to buy practices to sell onto the corporates.”

There are other factors as to why prices have gone up such as providing improved and more expensive treatments, expectations from clients who perhaps demand these treatments and as a consequence expectations go up. There is also an argument that traditional, independent veterinarians have been under-charging and therefore the increased pricing simply brings it up to scratch.

In defence, a spokesman for IVC said: There are thousands of independent vets in the UK, making up about half the overall market. IVC Evidensia invests heavily in its clinics, for the benefit of customers, pets and staff. We offer excellent value for money and run a hardship fund for customers most in need.”

Profit targets for veterinary businesses owned by hedge funds and corporate businesses have increased. These owners demand increases. According to the RCVS six companies own the majority of veterinary practices in the UK. Comment: my personal thought is that it is a backward step certainly in terms of the kind of service that people want from a veterinarian. It is a bad fit: money and the sort of sensitive customer service one wants from a veterinarian.

I believe that it will result in a deterioration of the quality of services provided and certain it will put off a lot of people going to a veterinarian. Already, not enough cat owners take their cat to a vet when required for reasons of finance and the difficulties of taking a cat to a vet, primarily stress. Hiking up prices to the point where some are much higher than for humans won’t help. For example, an MRI scan for a patient at Nuffield Health costs about £440 using an advanced 3T scanner. The average cost of a non-emergency MRI for cats and dogs is £2,500 (source: personal Finance research firm NimbleFins).

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