SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — In late January, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced the country is suffering a shortage of rural veterinarians in 187 regions.
In response, the American Veterinary Medical Assoc. (AVMA) is urging Congress to pass the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (S. 487/H.R. 1268).
AVMA President Michael Topper notes the shortage of vets risks animal and public health, as well as the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. “Veterinarians are the best line of defense against animal diseases that can endanger humans, destroy livestock herds and hurt rural economies,” he said.
The AVMA believes the shortage is due, in part, to increasing veterinary student debt loads, which discourage young vets from practicing in rural areas where salaries are often lower than those in urban areas. In 2016, the average veterinary student debt reached $143,758.
Currently, the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) attempts to alleviate the problem by offering loan forgiveness to vets who commit to serving three years in underserved areas. Denise Derrer, director of public information for the Indiana Board of Animal Health, said the program is an asset to the state.
“This year Indiana has five shortage areas approved for potential funding from VMLRP,” she noted. “We continue to support the program and encourage qualifying veterinarians to apply. We know it has made a difference in coverage – we have seen coverage in some areas/livestock sectors expanded in the last five or six years.”
David Anderson, head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department in the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said VMLRP has been a vital tool to some students post-graduation.
“This debt relief mechanism has allowed students who wish to spend their career in rural America serving those communities the ability to enter those communities, rather than staying in more metropolitan areas where their salaries are higher and their ability to service their debt better,” he explained.
Unfortunately, VMLRP does not receive enough funding to reach demand, partly because each award is subject to an expensive income-withholding tax that sends the program’s funding back to the government. The legislation AVMA is pushing, H.R. 1268, would eliminate the tax, thereby freeing up additional funding to distribute among more underserved areas.
Had the tax not applied back in 2010 when VMLRP was implemented, an additional 211 shortage areas could have been filled.
Anderson said expanded debt relief for students would definitely encourage them to pursue careers in rural America.
“I've been educating veterinary students for 30 years and I know that the number of students who have a desire to practice in rural America has not decreased,” he said. “The percentage of students that are taking jobs in metropolitan areas has tremendously increased proportional to the increasing student debt.
“If the students were able to make a living for themselves and their families in rural settings, I have no doubt that they would enter rural communities more frequently and be more likely to stay there.”
According to Anderson, about half of veterinary students say they are interested in practicing in rural America, but that number drops to 10-15 percent upon graduation as a result of the debt obligations and lower starting salaries that often exist in rural communities.
He said another benefit to the program is that veterinarians who enter rural practices are the people ideal to stand on the front lines in terms of public health and agricultural security.
“These veterinarians have knowledge and training that far exceeds many other professionals and, as a result, can be a tremendous resource to make sure that our nation’s food supply and civilian population stay safe,” he pointed out.
Shortage areas are identified by USDA based on requests from state animal health officials and determined on an annual basis. These regions can be located by visiting the USDA website at https://nifa.usda.gov/vmlrp-shortage-situations