Health reform, veterinary-style

What’s the price of love? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately as I don my rubber gloves and prepare to administer a dose of antibacterial ointment on the business end of my dog, Scotty.

Of course, he can’t help that his current malady requires an unpleasant application of medicated ointment.

He also couldn’t help that last year he grew a large, fatty tumor that had to be surgically removed, or that recently he had another operation to remove a bladder stone.

Still, the family pet who greets us so enthusiastically whenever we walk into our home, who wags his tail when we talk about him because he recognizes the sound of his own name, and who alerts me to the arrival of the UPS delivery truck, has lately become a drain on our finances.

On the other hand, Scotty is an important part of our family, so assuring his good health is something I do without hesitation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I do it thoughtlessly. With each diagnosis, I’ve talked at length with our veterinarian about the expenses associated with Scotty’s treatment. I weigh my choices against a cost-benefit equation so I’m sure to get the most bang for my doggy health care dollars. After I receive an estimate for his treatment, I’ve called other veterinarian practices and checked online to be sure I’m paying the going rate for services.

Case in point: When it was suggested that a costly, special diet might solve the bladder stone issue - or might not - I opted to skip that experiment and just have the surgery. It meant fewer X-rays, eliminating a $300 ultrasound fee, and a sure solution to the problem.

All in all, given that my now-healthy pup rests comfortably at my feet as I type these words, I think I’ve done a good job of managing his care and at the same time managing the cost of his care.

Oddly, though my husband and I play the same role in the lives of our family, we have almost no parallel stories of cost containment when it comes to our health care. Whenever my family comes in contact with the health care system, our participation is generally limited to receiving the care that is recommended to us.

Now, I’m aware that we’re blessed with excellent doctors and an exceptional employer-provided health insurance plan. It’s no surprise I’m among the 70 percent of Americans who are overwhelmingly happy with my access to health care. (By the way, among the 46 million Americans without health insurance, the same 70 percent say they do receive health care and are happy with their care, too. Hmmmm).

Yet, I’m also aware that many of my family’s encounters with the health care system could have been more cost-efficient. The fact is there’s no reason to forgo an expensive, precautionary test when you’re not paying for it, even if you’re convinced it’s unnecessary. And there’s no reason not to recommend such a test when the person to whom you’re recommending it won’t write the check to cover it.

That sort of blind consumption allows for excessive spending and reduces consumer participation to contain health care costs. Yet the current push for universal coverage is a push to expand this practice even more broadly.

A system that relies on the informed decisions of individuals and that offers incentives to keep costs down actually would represent meaningful reform, but the solutions to the health care dilemma that include competition and incentives don’t get much attention, supposedly because they might jeopardize quality care.

Tell that to Scotty the dog. He’s feeling just fine.

Visit Marybeth Hicks at www.marybeth hicks.com.

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