If you thought the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would change health care just for human patients, think again.
When your dog breaks his leg running through a field riddled with gopher holes, the cost of his X-ray could go up. Or if your cat is dehydrated during the warm Central Valley summer, the price tag on her intravenous fluids might increase.
It all depends on how local veterinarians decide to handle a new tax on medical devices, and the many variables in the labeling of those devices as intended for human or animals.
The medical device excise tax, as it's known by the IRS, adds 2.6 percent to the cost of new medical devices purchased after Jan. 1. That includes replacement joints, surgical tools, blood pressure cuffs, syringes and anything else a doctor or nurse might use on a patient.
Written into the law is a stipulation that medical equipment labeled for use on animals will not be taxed. So it seems at first glance that animal doctors are exempt.
But Lodi veterinarian Richard Peckham of San Joaquin Veterinary Clinic says almost everything he uses to examine and treat pets is nearly identical to what might be used on a human. Up to 99 percent of what veterinarians use is similar to what human doctors use, though it might be sized down or modified for animals, he said.
Peckham even compared his animal clinic with a pediatric doctor's office.
"The patients are different, of course, but children and animals don't schedule their own appointments; they don't go into the exam room alone," he said.
The few items designed specifically for animals include restraints, special gloves and long poles to keep rabid animals at a distance from humans. The most distinctive animal-only device is the Elizabethan collar, a plastic cone meant to prevent animals from biting at wounds as they heal.
"They don't put those on people very often," said Peckham.
Because there are so many similarities between human and animal patients, many devices are fine for use in more than one species.
X-ray machines and developers are universal, and most vet clinics have their own in-house. Surgery and instrument tables aren't unique to human hospitals. Any heart monitor that works on a man will work on a horse. Intravenous pumps and tool sterilizing machines are the same whether they're used for Grandma or a housecat. Even something as advanced as a wound-VAC, or vacuum assisted closure device, can help a dog with a large wound heal faster; a wound-VAC is commonly used on humans after major surgery to heal incisions that struggle to close.
As a result, restocking a veterinary clinic could become very expensive this year.
The ray of hope for veterinary clinics cringing at their budgets is in the labeling. When a vet orders equipment, they prefer to work with a distributor specifically for vets. If that's the case, the items should be labeled for veterinary use and exempt from the charge, according to David Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
But if the same item is cheaper or more readily available from a supplier for human patients, many vets will buy from that source with no danger to the animals.
The regulation was announced in December 2012 by the IRS. Kirkpatrick said there is significant interest on the part of members of Congress to repeal the medical device tax, though nothing has been done yet.
So far, the tax is too new to predict how vets will deal with it.
"We don't know how vets will absorb or pass on cost," said Kirkpatrick. "We certainly hope any increases in costs associated with the tax don't keep people from seeking care for their pets."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.