Will Obamacare Drive Up Your Pet Care Costs?

Devices that can be used on both humans and animals—from CT scanning machines to cardiac monitors—are subject to a new tax.

A small provision in the Affordable Care Act includes a 2.3 percent tax on devices that can be used on both humans and animals. (Getty Images/LWA)
Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Emily Friedman, a suburban farmer whose menagerie includes chickens and goats on a small patch of land 30 minutes outside Washington, D.C., is sometimes very surprised by how much her veterinarian costs. She once spent $12 more to put down a hamster than she had paid to purchase it in the first place; another time she spent $700 on emergency care for a goat who then died the next day. So recent news that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes a small, little-known provision that could increase the cost of some pet care was not welcome information for Friedman, and probably won’t be for the millions of other pet owners in the U.S., either.

But it is true. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA), final rules on a provision in the ACA call for a 2.3 percent tax on certain medical devices, including ones that can be used by either animals or humans. Those types of devices can range from inexpensive catheters to CT scanning machines that come with eye-popping price tags. Other devices that could be used by both Fido and his owner include IV fluid pumps, endoscopes, and cardiac monitors.

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So, if, say, your vet buys a CT scanner, which can range from about $75,000 to $450,000, the new tax adds anywhere from about $1,500 to $8,500 for the device and she could add it to the price of your pet's scan, or assess everyone a few dollars more. At the other end of the spectrum, catheters cost from around 50 cents for disposable ones to $12 for reusable ones, so the tax-per-device would range from less than a penny to a couple of cents.

According to the AVMA, because of the many similarities between human and animal patients, some devices are suitable for use in more than one species, even if they aren’t specifically labeled as such. There’s some good news, though, says Victoria Barq, a spokesman for the association, and that is that devices labeled and approved only for veterinary use will not be subject to the tax.

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How much the new rules might affect your vet bill depends a lot on the device, and the vet. “It’s reasonable to believe that the tax could increase the cost of providing veterinary medical care,” according to the AVMA, which says that individual veterinary practices will decide if they will or won’t pass on the cost of the new taxes to pet owners. “We certainly hope that any increases in costs associated with the…tax do not keep people from seeking appropriate medical care for their pets and making regular visits to their veterinarian,” says Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, a veterinarian and director of AVMA’s governmental relations division. “With the economic burdens that are already facing many of our patients, I can assure you that our veterinarians will take great care in balancing the financial effects of this new tax on both their businesses and their patients.”

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Lutschaunig says he expects that rather than just making quick price increases, the new regulations will make vets take a hard look at the devices they use before buying any new equipment.

It’s best to ask about every test your vet recommends, especially if it requires a device you’ve been charged for before. That way, you can avoid sticker shock and even ask the vet for a discount or payment plan if the add-on price for the tax is beyond your means. 

The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) offers tips for saving money on medical expenses for pets, including scheduling regular check-ups, brushing your pet’s teeth, keeping your pet away from secondhand smoke, and investing in pet health insurance. 

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