Veterinary Wellness Plans

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A growing trend in veterinary medicine?for animals large and small?is the offer of a ?wellness plan? through your own veterinarian?s practice.? This isn?t health insurance for your horse. If you're interested in that, please see our insurance series, which ran in September, October and November 2012.? The trend here is more like a health maintenance program.

it's a package deal in which you pay for all the preventive services your horse needs over the course of a year, but you get some extras, ranging from a discount on the cost of the services if purchased individually, to the added bonus of a colic ?rider? of some type.

The good news for horses is that these packages ensure that the horses receive all their necessary veterinary exams, vaccinations, dewormings and more. The plans help put an end to owner-given vaccines?with no epinephrine on hand in the event of a reaction?and home remedies that prolong the horse's agony in an attempt to save a few dollars.

The good news for owners is that the burden of remembering to schedule all these appointments is removed, you can save a great deal of money (hurray!), and you can rest assured that your horse is receiving optimal veterinary attention.

THE OFFERINGS.? The programs we found were pretty similar, with the basic plans including:

  • Annual AAEP-recommended core vaccinations
  • Nutritional consult
  • Eye exam
  • Physical/routine check-up (lungs, heart, etc.)
  • Deworming strategy, possibly including fecals
  • Dental exam
  • Assessment of soundness.

From there, the plans go in many different directions. Many have add-ons, like dental floating, sheath/udder cleanings and even a farrier care package. The more elements added to the plan, the more expensive it is, of course. Most include two routine visits per year (spring and fall).? The nutritional consult alone would probably pay for itself over the course of a year, as the vast majority of horse owners over supplement their horses.

Several have packages tailored to different types of horses, i.e. home-boarded trail horses, vs. competition horses/boarded horses.? The rationale is that horses in contact with outside equines need additional shots, bloodwork and, possibly, additional preventive work, such as routine X-rays or more in-depth lameness/soundness exams.? You may also find packages that include deworming pastes and daily dewormers for the year.

What's In It For Them'?So, why would veterinarians start offering such administratively intense programs to their clients'? First, it offers them a somewhat predictable amount of income, a problem that always looms large for small businesses.

It also offers client retention. If you weren?t enrolled in a wellness program with a specific vet, you might switch vets because you're unhappy for some reason, whether it's appointment availability or a personal issue.

The wellness program helps the practice plan. They know how many support staff they?ll need and what they need to order for the season.? Veterinarians can get substantial discounts on vaccines if they purchase them in bulk, plus, knowing how many they need helps solve the problem of back-ordered vaccines.

It also helps your vet help you.? If your vet sees your horse twice a year, chances are better that little health problems can be addressed before they become full-blown emergencies.

PREVENTIVE CARE. Of course, in human medicine, the idea of preventive care is nothing new.? We've all heard our primary care physicians remind us to get our routine mammograms, prostate exam, pap smears, colonoscopies, flu shots, tetanus vaccines and more.? And health insurance companies support these practices because they know it's far less expensive and more advantageous to catch a problem early.

Preventive health care is similar with animals, with one exception: A woman might notice that she has put on some extra weight, but she might not realize that her horse is on the path to insulin resistance until it's at the laminitis stage.

that's why these programs can help.? Not only is an experienced outside eye looking at your horse, but that ?eye? is also getting to see your horse on a regular basis instead of just once a year for a quick vaccination or, horrors, only when the horse is critically ill.? In addition, the administrative staff at the veterinary hospital takes care of ensuring that your appointment gets scheduled, so that's one fewer thing to juggle in our already too busy lives.

?We manage the horse's needs, which our clients like,? said Kari Kanne, administrator for the Anoka Equine Wellness Program in Minnesota.? This practice has offered the program for several years.? They provide the client with a typed report of the veterinarian?s findings at each visit, results from any tests and recommendations.

THE CATCH' Well, it's a hunk of money to put down all at once.? Although rates for these services vary widely, as would be expected since veterinary costs are driven somewhat by geographic area, most basic programs hover between $500 and $600 per year per horse.? Most offerings don't list individual costs of the services but boast about discounts ranging from a low of 8% to as much as 35% off of regular fees when you purchase a package.? A few practices offer additional discounts for multiple horses enrolled.

The cost of the program is usually due when you sign up, although we did see options of putting down a certain amount and then giving the practice permission to bill your credit card monthly for the balance.

Colic Programs:?Several practices offer a ?colic program.?? A few are stand-alone offerings from the practice itself, such as free colic care or a dollar amount toward it. Several practices support the SmartPak ColiCare program. Some add a specific dollar amount onto the $7,500 SmartPak offers.? To be eligible for the SmartPak program, you must meet certain specific requirements, which are close to most basic wellness programs. You must also feed the company?s Smart Digest Ultra, a supplement designed to support gastro-intestinal health.

Pharmacy Developments: ?Drugs are expensive. We've written several times about the dangers of using compounded pharmacies to save money on your horse medicines. We've also discussed how to tactfully ask your veterinarian for a prescription for a medicine your horse needs on a regular basis, as you might find a less expensive source, such as Dover Saddlery or SmartPak, which can offer the same drugs at a lower price. Most states don't allow veterinarians to refuse to write a prescription for a medicine they're recommending, based on the examination of your horse.? But the vet might grumble a bit, and it's understandable.

that's because veterinary practices must carry medicines to serve the needs of their patients.? However, it's difficult for them to compete price-wise with the huge veterinary pharmacies now flooding the Internet and with companies like Walmart showing interest, too. Plus, a small practice runs the risk of medicines they need to have in stock expiring before they're used?a cost that must be absorbed by the veterinarian. When you factor in all this, the already small profit margin slims drastically.

So, we're seeing veterinarians becoming creative. Some have made specific arrangements with a pharmaceutical wholesaler to sell medicine at a discount to that veterinarian?s clients, while the practice collects a percentage themselves.? You may also learn that your veterinarian has joined others to form a ?purchasing group? that allows them to buy larger quantities of supplies at once at a lower per-item price. Many will pass that discount on to their clients. Some larger practices actually have a commercial veterinary drug store. (We did notice that none of the preventive programs we saw offered any type of additional discount on any drugs, with the possible exception of vaccines and dewormers.)

BOTTOM LINE. We support these programs because we believe they are best for the horse, ensuring proper care.? However, it's important to remember that these programs are not insurance. They do not guarantee anything in the event of an actual emergency or illness. A few practices had limits on how many clients could enroll in a plan.

We highly recommend that if your veterinary practice offers you this program you get a list of the included services, exclusions and requirements in writing.? Check to see that the services in the package you purchase include everything you want. For instance, we noticed one package included a tetanus shot every third year, while the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends that shot annually. The time to discuss brands of vaccines or dewormers is before you agree to the program. Be sure you know what the time parameters are, i.e. the spring visit will be done during March or April, while the fall visit will be in September or October. And find out if you will always see the same veterinarian at each visit or if it's random (we think this is important).

Article by Contributing Farrier Editor Lee Foley.