Congress has again taken up legislation intended to increase the number of veterinarians working in food safety, food systems, biomedical research, and other public health-related areas of practice.
Recent studies have shown dramatic shortfalls of veterinarians in key public health practice areas such as bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, environmental health, and food systems. Indeed, the nation's livestock and meat industries may be threatened in the years ahead because of a projected severe dearth of food animal veterinarians.
The Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, introduced in both the House and Senate in February and March, respectively, is meant to offset these shortages by creating a 10-year, $1.5 billion competitive federal grants program to build research, diagnostic, and training capacity in the nation's veterinary colleges.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, which is championing the legislation, says the current national pool of 2,500 new veterinarians graduated annually is not enough to meet the demands of a growing population and the changing public health needs of society.
"This legislation provides an opportunity for all of our nation's 28 veterinary medical colleges to build classrooms, teaching facilities, and diagnostic and research laboratories to serve the public health needs of a growing population for years to come," said AAVMC Executive Director Lawrence E. Heider.
The workforce expansion bill directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to award the grants on the basis of applicants' ability to add to the number of veterinarians trained in specific public health practice areas. Increasing capacity in research involving high-priority disease agents is also a consideration for grant approval.
Additionally, preference would be given to applicants demonstrating a comprehensive approach by involving more than one veterinary college, department of comparative medicine, or school of medicine, or by offering veterinarians a postgraduate residency training program in various public health areas.
Dr. Lance Perryman, AAVMC president, called the bill a "realistic solution" to the lack of veterinarians working in critical public health areas. "Public health practice veterinarians affect the lives of every citizen of this country every day," Dr. Perryman said.
Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin introduced the House version of the workforce expansion bill (H.R. 1232) Feb. 28; Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, a veterinarian, introduced the Senate version (S. 746) March 2.
"Veterinary medicine is an integral and indispensable component of the nation's public health system, and is essential for early detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks like the West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome, monkeypox, and avian influenza," Dr. Allard said.
"We have a need to build national capacity in research training in the prevention, surveillance, diagnosis, and control of newly emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases," he added.
The Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act was considered during the last congressional session, yet the measure was stuck in committee at the conclusion of the 109th Congress last year.
Dr. Robert Nichols, an assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, explained that the bill, which the AVMA supports, had gained a fair amount of support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"We had a third of the Senate co-sponsoring the bill and nearly 60 co-sponsors in the House, which is more than the National Veterinary Medical Service Act had when it passed," Dr. Nichols noted.
The bill's chances of passing this time around are better for a number of reasons, according to Dr. Nichols. Dr. Allard, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of his second term in 2008, now sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which will review the expansion bill. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor in the last session, now chairs the committee.
Moreover, Dick Durbin of Illinois, who, as assistant majority leader, is the Senate's second most powerful Democrat, was a supporter of the bill.
For more information about the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, contact Dr. Robert Nichols at (800) 321-1473, Ext. 3204, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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