THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Bella case: Vet tells his side of the story

My recent column on the death of Sarah Hald's dog, Bella ["Surgical strike," July 13], brought a strong reaction from veterinarian Richard Freedman. Freedman performed surgery on Bella's knees last January; the four-year-old German shepherd died a week later of a systemic infection. 

Hald's dispute with the clinic, Albemarle Veterinary Health Care Center (AVHCC), centered on Freedman's $5,000 bill: Hald felt she shouldn't have to pay it, since Bella– an apparently healthy animal– didn't survive the surgery. 

Freedman was frustrated, in part, because I didn't state that he operated on both of Bella's knees. He's right: When Hald referred to "knee surgery," I assumed she meant one. In the interest of fairness, I think the issue deserves a second look.

"Local consumers now have the idea that knee surgery in my practice costs 2-3 times" as much as it would at other local practices, he protested via email, adding that other veterinarians "don't even do the same, most advanced procedure." 

As for the reason he told Hald that she wouldn't be able to take Bella home on the day scheduled, Freedman denies he said that the wound "wasn't closing well." Rather, he claims, he reported that Bella "wasn't making the progress with walking we expected." 

Freedman also denies that Hald was told the CareCredit application she filled out was "preliminary." CareCredit allows patients and pet owners to pay for expensive procedures through no-interest and extended-payment plans. When Hald expressed concern over the $5,000 estimate, she says, she was given a CareCredit application and told that it was preliminary so that they would know whether she qualified for credit. 

Based on that, she says, she was unhappily surprised to learn last month that AVHCC had charged $3,500 of the bill to CareCredit; she hadn't realized, she claims, that that was even possible, since she hadn't authorized the charge. 

Both Freedman and AVHCC's office manager, Marge Gay, contend that Hald was not told that the application was only a preliminary step. Both also admit, however, that they weren't present during the discussion. When I asked whether I could speak with the employee who explained CareCredit to Hald, Gay says that she doesn't know which employee it would have been– and to complicate matters, one of the employees it might have been no longer works there. 

Gay told me she explicitly stated in a March letter to Hald that AVHCC would be charging the $3,500 to CareCredit. That's the same certified letter I wrote about in my earlier column, which Freedman and Gay claim was returned when Hald failed to pick it up. 

Finally, Freedman took issue with the statement from another veterinarian that consumers in a similar situation could request an independent autopsy from such agencies as Virginia Tech or the state's Division of Animal Health and Welfare. Freedman wasn't disputing that statement, which is correct, but rather the apparent implication that the postmortem he performed on Bella was less than objective. 

Freedman says he sent all relevant tissue samples to Antech Laboratories, which he describes as "the largest veterinary diagnostic laboratory in the world." Antech's verdict: systemic infection of unknown cause. Freedman is vehement that negligence on his or his staff's part was not responsible for Bella's infection. 

Yet the dog is dead, and Hald has contested the charge with CareCredit. Freedman, at least so far, hasn't taken any steps to collect the $1,500 balance. 

It doesn't surprise me that feelings are running high on this one; the desire to heal a cherished animal tends to overrule all other considerations. For that very reason, consumers need to be as objective as possible when weighing their options.

Sadly, one question has to be: "Can I afford to pay this bill if my pet dies?" Because if the death isn't due to negligence, the bill isn't going to disappear.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.