Several AVMA representatives met Aug. 30 with then Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to express concerns about implementation of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, which authorizes repayment of student loans for veterinarians who serve in geographic and professional shortage areas.
Johanns resigned Sept. 19, and the effect of his resignation on the outcome of the meeting was not clear at press time.
Shortly before the meeting, the Department of Agriculture had published a notice that the Food Safety and Inspection Service will spend $750,000 of the $1 million that Congress has so far appropriated for NVMSA to facilitate FSIS recruitment of veterinarians. Under an existing program for federal employees, FSIS will offer loan repayments to veterinary medical officers as incentives to fill "hardship posts."
Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, said that since Congress passed NVMSA in 2003, the AVMA has been working with the USDA toward writing rules and regulations to allow the department to run the program as originally intended—to place veterinarians in geographic and professional shortage areas, not just within the federal government.
"The USDA has been dragging its feet on getting the rules and regulations written for the program, supposedly because there was not enough money to warrant writing the rules and regulations," Dr. Lutschaunig said. "We are working with the USDA to determine the appropriate level of funding needed to implement the program."
The AVMA members who met with Johanns to discuss NVMSA included Dr. Lutschaunig; Dr. Robert Nichols, assistant director of the AVMA GRD; Dr. John Melcher, a former U.S. senator from Montana and current AVMA consultant; Dr. M.L. Dierks, a Nebraska state senator; and Dr. Gregory S. Hammer, AVMA president.
"The meeting was to express our concerns and frustration with the lack of progress in getting the program up and running as originally intended," Dr. Lutschaunig said.
Dr. Nichols said the USDA's argument is that the department doesn't have enough personnel and resources to handle a new loan repayment program. According to the recent USDA notice, the loan repayments for FSIS veterinarians will be the first step toward implementing NVMSA.
"We are upset that the NVMSA money is being transferred to a pre-existing FSIS loan repayment program, which was not Congress' intent when they appropriated the money," Dr. Nichols said. "However, we are optimistic that Congress will clarify to the USDA its expectations regarding the appropriate use of NVMSA funds."
Dr. Nichols said FSIS does have shortage areas, but the driving force behind NVMSA was to place veterinarians in food animal practice and mixed animal practice in rural areas. Johanns seemed to appreciate the importance of the program, Dr. Nichols said, and also seemed sincere in his desire to move the program forward.
"The fact that we got a meeting with the secretary indicates that he's aware the USDA's lack of progress is unacceptable," Dr. Nichols said prior to Johanns' resignation.
The discussion included ways to modify NVMSA to make the act easier to implement. Dr. Nichols said one problem is that NVMSA authorizes the USDA to address many veterinary shortage areas, including needs within the federal government, and prioritizing those shortage areas is challenging.
According to the recent USDA notice, the department plans to request information from stakeholders on how to define veterinarian shortages within the limits of NVMSA and how to cost-effectively administer a loan repayment program for nonfederal veterinarians who serve in these situations.
In the meantime, FSIS will begin offering loan repayments to food animal veterinarians for hard-to-fill positions in food safety and supply, especially in rural areas. The agency intends to offer $10,000 per year over three years to each of 25 FSIS veterinarians. Information about eligible positions is available at www.fsis.usda.gov/careers/Student_Loan_Repayments_VMO.
The USDA notice appeared Aug. 24 in the Federal Register, online at www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/. Additional information about FSIS NVMSA loan repayments is available from Ronald K. Jones at (202) 720-9521 or Ronald.Jones@fsis.usda.gov. Information about overall NVMSA implementation is available from Gary B. Sherman at (202) 401-4952 or Gary.Sherman@csrees.usda.gov.