Dog owner blindsided by surprise bill for ‘free exam’

Lance Morrow and Kathleen Reilly with Cornelius. The couple says they visited Banfield Pet Hospital inside a PerSmart store for a free exam for Corny, but they ended up with a bill that went to collections.
Lance Morrow and Kathleen Reilly with Cornelius. The couple says they visited Banfield Pet Hospital inside a PerSmart store for a free exam for Corny, but they ended up with a bill that went to collections. 

Pet owners want good care for their furry loved ones.

They also want to save a buck when they can.

Kathleen Reilly and Lance Morrow are no different. And they consider their rescue dog Cornelius, a Shih Tzu-Poodle mix estimated to be four or five years old, a member of their family.

The couple took Corny to what they thought was a free exam at a Banfield Pet Hospital — the veterinary chain located in many PetSmart stores.

Months later, they ended up with a surprise bill.

Banfield officials say there shouldn’t have been any surprise.

But first, the couple’s story.

During a September 2016 visit to the PetSmart store in Millburn, Corny’s masters were told by the staff about a free consultation offered by Banfield, the couple said.

The Millburn PetSmart doesn’t house a Banfield, but staff suggested they go to the one in Union, the couple said.

The Millburn store was out of the coupon for the free exam, the couple said, so they were told to pick one up at the Union store.

They called ahead for an appointment in Union, and, Reilly said, they made it clear they were coming in for the free consultation.

When the appointment time came, there were no coupons in the Union store, they said.

When they signed in, Morrow made it clear they were only interested in the free exam, they said. He did ask about a heartworm shot, but the facility didn’t offer one, they said.

“The receptionist/salesperson was in the examining room explaining their various products — pet insurance and some other program — while the vet looked at the dog,” Reilly said. “My husband raised the question of a charge at the time, and was told, ‘This is something we always do.'”

The couple said there was no bill when they left the store.

But they received one in December: $54.95 to cover the appointment they thought was free.

“We called and challenged the bill that we received in December and thought that had concluded the issue, until we got a bill collector’s bill,” Reilly said.

Reilly said she called the collections company, which gave her the a corporate number for Banfield.

“The corporate number said they would not do anything,” Reilly said.

So she turned to PetSmart for help, but several managers said they couldn’t help either. Employees referred her back to Banfield.

Reilly said she spoke to Banfield’s practice manager, who promised to talk to the field manager and get back to her. When no one called her back, Reilly called again, and the practice manager said she couldn’t help, Reilly said.

“This seems like a disingenuous lead,” Reilly said. “Come in for a free consult/sales call and then get billed for services not wanted nor requested.”

That’s when she contacted Bamboozled.

CALLING OFF THE DOGS

We reached out to see if Banfield would reconsider and — pardon the pun — call off the dogs.

While we waited for a reply, we did a little research.

A quick Google search found thousands of online complaints about Banfield across multiple consumer sites. Complaints ranged from pet care issues to billing problems to the company’s Wellness Plan, which is essentially a health insurance plan for pets.

In 1994, Banfield entered into a partnership with PetSmart, and there are now 900 hospital locations across the United States, corporate websites say.

PetSmart’s site boasts about its relationship with Banfield, and it offers a free exam for new clients.

New customers only have to sign up on PetSmart’s site and they can then they can print the coupon — so it doesn’t seem like a very selective offer. Any new customer can qualify, according to the site.

Granted, the couple admits they did not have a coupon with them when they went for the appointment, but they said their conversations with staff led them to believe that was okay. They believed the practice would honor a free visit.

They weren’t asked to pay when they left the hospital, and they said they had no expectation that they’d ever receive a bill for services.

We asked Banfield to review the case, and it said it would indeed call off the dogs.

In emailed a statement, Dr. Ari Zabell, Banfield’s “client advocate,” said the practice is full of “highly qualified professionals as well as pet owners and pet lovers,” and it’s “deeply committed to the well being of pets.”

He also said Banfield is “committed to ensuring all clients have a positive experience when visiting a Banfield hospital.”

“In this case, the client was under the assumption that the office visit was free, however, no coupon was provided at the time of visit and therefore, the client was charged appropriately — we know misunderstandings happen, and we’ve already reached out to the client to address their concerns and resolved the issue,” he said.

Reilly reported she spoke to Zabell by phone.

The doctor said he would waive the fee and cancel the collection agency, she said.

“It was also important to him that I know the quality and extent of the knowledge and expertise of the staff and that the doctor had taken the time to check our dog,” Reilly said.

She told the doctor they had not requested a full physical and came only because of the coupon, she said.

“That being the case, without a coupon, why did they provide the service? To us, it felt like entrapment,” she said.

The doctor told Reilly the hospital’s notes showed her husband was told three times that there would be a fee.

The couple disagrees.

“I wonder, is it common to note marketing/billing practices in medical visit records?” Reilly said.

Good question.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.