As construction workers wrapped up work at Mission Animal Hospital’s new facility in Eden Prairie last week, a cat was on the operating table getting spayed and a dog with an eye infection waited in an exam room.
At Minnesota’s first and only nonprofit full-service veterinary clinic, demand for affordable services is high. Mission Hospital draws clients from five states, most of them low-income people who might not otherwise be able to afford veterinary treatment. Prices on everything from a basic exam to vaccinations and surgery are 15 to 20 percent lower than a traditional clinic.
“I reject the notion that people who can’t afford pets shouldn’t have them,” said veterinarian and Mission owner Dr. Susan Miller.
Miller bought the animal hospital about a year ago, and convinced the state to allow her to convert the for-profit clinic to a 501(c)3. It’s a designation currently not permitted under the narrowly worded state statute, which allows only licensed veterinarians to own clinics — not business entities or charities, such as Mission.
“I wanted the message to be clear that we would offer the lowest prices possible,” Miller said about the decision to reorganize the veterinary practice as a nonprofit. “And that can’t be done if someone is taking profits out of the business. With all extra money going back into the hospital, the message is very clear.”
Mission Animal Hospital is open to people of all income levels, though people with means pay the full rate. The clinic charges a sliding-scale fee for those who are poor, disabled or qualify for Medical Assistance or food programs. A $10,000 fund established by a donor provides an additional safety net, allowing clients up to $400 to defray costs if a team of doctors determines the pet has a good long-term prognosis.
In some cases, Mission offers an in-house payment plan to help people who might need more time. Only about 10 percent of fees are written off, Miller said.
“We take the risk and help people absorb the hit,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we’re helping the pets.”
Formerly located in a cramped space in a Hopkins strip mall now slated for the wrecking ball, Miller threw open the doors a week ago to a larger and more modern $1 million facility near the intersection of Interstate 494 and Hwy. 169.
Funded in part by private donors and a $500,000 matching grant, Miller expects to double the number of pets Mission Animal Hospital can treat in the coming year.
Miller worked as an interior designer for 12 years before enrolling in veterinary school at the University of Minnesota, and created the new space that is both efficient and contemporary.
Steel slabs salvaged from her family’s Minnetonka Moccasins warehouse line one wall. A waiting room puts distance between dogs and cats (who get the window view), and a cat-only examination room ensures that felines will never get a whiff of their canine rivals.
The clinic has an on-site lab and pharmacy, a digital X-ray machine and a surgery suite.
The staff of 22 includes eight full- and part-time veterinarians.
“We do a lot with a little,” Miller said.
Veterinarians in some states, including Alabama and California, have protested the formation of charitable pet hospitals such as Mission Animal Hospital, arguing they’ve been given an unfair competitive advantage.
Miller said she’s experienced no such backlash in Minnesota, where she has tried to position the clinic as a place of referral and a “partner” with other practices. Mainstream vets whose clients can’t afford treatment often send them to Mission, Miller said, and the clinic also works closely with charitable rescue groups across the state.
“It’s really a great resource,” said Cindy Johnson, customer resource manager at the Humane Society in Golden Valley. “We would rather help people maintain their relationship with their pets than have them surrender it to a shelter.”
Miller aims to create a business model in Minnesota that not only provides low-cost pet care, but also takes an active role in community education and preventive care. Mission already partners with animal rescue organizations, and Miller envisions going to senior centers or other facilities where people don’t have easy access to transportation and providing vaccinations and checkups.
Count Sally Chermack among Mission’s fans. Her fluffy white Bichon mix, Daisy, had a bad reaction to a routine rabies shot this summer and ended up comatose with internal bleeding.
Chermack, who is on a fixed income since retiring a few years ago from Hopkins Public Schools, was fearful of mounting costs. “I had a dog once years ago, and I put her to sleep because I couldn’t continue with the finances,” Chermack said.
Mission Hospital worked out an affordable treatment plan, and 9-year-old Daisy is nearly back to her old self.
“She’s the love of my life,” Chermack said. “I’m just so grateful to Mission.”