AVMA tells Senate subcommittee that nation is at risk
posted March 15, 2009
A new report is raising concerns that the federal government's veterinarian workforce isn't large enough to guarantee a safe food supply and effectively address zoonotic diseases.
The Government Accounting Office, which authored the report, found that the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have not assessed the sufficiency of their veterinarian workforces despite the fact that agencies employing "mission-critical" veterinarians are currently experiencing shortages or anticipating future shortages.
As a result, USDA agencies such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service compete with one another for veterinarians instead of trying to balance the needs of the agencies, according to the report. Moreover, because the USDA and DHHS aren't fully aware of the status of the veterinarian workforces at their component agencies, neither department can strategically plan for future veterinarian needs.
The GAO report titled "Veterinarian workforce: Actions are needed to ensure sufficient capacity for protecting public health and animal health" was the focus of a Feb. 26 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.
"It is alarming to see in black-and-white how ill-prepared our nation appears to be in the event of a major animal disease outbreak or, worse, a pandemic."
—Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, CEO, AVMA, testifying before a Senate subcommittee that steps must be taken to reverse the growing shortage of veterinarians employed by the federal government
Subcommittee chairman Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii requested the GAO review of the government's veterinarian workforce, which stands at approximately 3,000, out of concern for the nation's homeland security, public health, and food safety. "Unfortunately, GAO's report suggests that these concerns are well-founded," the senator said.
Lisa R. Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment for the GAO, testified that the lack of governmentwide initiative to address the shortage of federal veterinarians is problematic because a majority of the 24 agencies that employ veterinarians have concerns about the sufficiency of their veterinarian workforce.
For example, the FSIS has not been fully staffed over the past decade, and veterinarians working in its slaughter plants told the GAO that this shortage has impaired the agency's ability to meet its food safety responsibilities, Shames explained.
Similarly, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service has had difficulty attracting and retaining veterinarians who also have a doctorate to conduct critical animal disease research, such as detecting avian influenza and developing vaccines against it, Shames told the subcommittee. Also, APHIS has identified a potential shortage of veterinary pathologists. In addition, the National Institutes of Health faces challenges recruiting veterinarians who specialize in laboratory animal medicine and pathology.
"Such challenges are likely to worsen as a large number of federal veterinarians become eligible to retire in the near future," Shames said.
For example, APHIS reported that 30 percent of its veterinarians will be eligible to retire by the end of fiscal year 2011. As the shortage grows, Shames said, agencies that pay veterinarians high salaries are likely to gain a recruitment advantage. Salaries for individual veterinarians range from $35,000 for those in the residency program at the National Zoo to $205,000 for the highest-paid veterinarian at NIH.
Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO, told the subcommittee that the lack of veterinarians available to fill critical positions in the federal government was "dangerous."
"It is alarming to see in black-and-white how ill-prepared our nation appears to be in the event of a major animal disease outbreak or, worse, a pandemic," Dr. DeHaven said. "Equally disconcerting is the lack of an integrated approach for assessing the current and future needs of the veterinary workforce by many federal agencies that rely on veterinarians to fill critically important public health, food safety, and animal health roles."
A former APHIS administrator, Dr. DeHaven cited multiple causes for the federal veterinary shortage. He pointed to veterinary student debt, noncompetitive federal salaries, limited ability to increase the number of veterinarians graduating from veterinary schools, and a demographic shift of students away from the rural farm settings that historically produced many food animal veterinarians as reasons for a declining applicant pool.
Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, testified that over the past 25 to 30 years, the number of U.S. veterinary colleges has remained static but for one new institution established in the late 1990s in California. As a result, the number of veterinary graduates nationally has remained at approximately 2,600 despite major increases in population, demand for animal protein, and new relationships among humans, domestic animals, and wildlife.
"To meet this increased need, either new colleges of veterinary medicine should be established or the size of our classes in colleges of veterinary medicine should be increased by substantial numbers," Dr. Pappaioanou said.
Also testifying before the subcommittee was Dr. Thomas J. McGinn, chief veterinarian for the Homeland Security Department's Office of Health Affairs. Among its many duties, the OHA fills a major role in protecting the nation's food supply, agriculture, and human and animal health, especially in times of catastrophe, such as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or H5N1 avian influenza. The department is having difficulties meeting its veterinary manpower needs, however.
"(T)he DHS has not only experienced a shortage of (veterinarian) applicants with experience working in the catastrophic incident arena, but also has experienced difficulty in recruiting senior subject matter experts," Dr. McGinn acknowledged.
Dr. McGinn told the subcommittee about how veterinarians in the United Kingdom were overwhelmed during the 2001 FMD outbreak, during which as many as 8 million animals were slaughtered. Two years later, the federal government held the Crimson Sky Exercise to determine the response to a similar outbreak in the United States. The exercise "showed us that even if a similar outbreak were contained in the United States within eight days, and full stoppage of livestock transportation were ordered, an estimated 23 million animals would be lost," he said. "The demand for a veterinary workforce will be in the additional thousands if a national, intentional, and catastrophic scenario like this were to occur."
Dr. Michael J. Gilsdorf, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, echoed Dr. McGinn's warning, explaining that the association's own members say there aren't enough federal veterinarians to properly respond to a large catastrophic event or multiple outbreaks occurring at once in multiple locations.
"Most veterinarians within the FDA, (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service, and (USDA) ARS are not adequately prepared, do not have the proper skillset, and/or would not be available to respond to major catastrophic events involving major livestock diseases, especially foreign animal diseases," Dr. Gilsdorf said.
To increase veterinarian capacity in the federal government, Shames of the GAO said the agency is recommending that the USDA secretary direct FSIS to periodically assess whether its inspection resources dedicated to food safety and humane slaughter activities are sufficient. Additionally, the USDA and DHHS secretaries should conduct departmentwide assessments of their veterinarian workforces to identify current and future workforce needs and departmentwide solutions to problems shared by their agencies.
The GAO is also recommending that the director of the Office of Personnel Management determine, based on USDA's and HHS's departmentwide veterinarian workforce evaluations, whether a governmentwide effort is needed to address shortcomings in the sufficiency of the current and future veterinarian workforce, according to Shames.
"If the federal government, as a whole, does not proactively assess current and future veterinarian workforce needs—for both routine and catastrophic events—it will continue to undermine its ability to protect the health of people, animals, and the economy," Shames said.
As for the AVMA, it has sought to increase the number of federal veterinarians by supporting legislation providing funds to expand capacity at the veterinary schools and colleges. The Association is also working with Congress to increase compensation for federal veterinarians so it is on par with that for other federal health professionals, and to reduce student debt through loan repayment programs such as the National Veterinary Medical Service Act. NVMSA, which provides student loan debt relief for graduates who commit to serving in food supply veterinary medicine, was signed into law in 2003 but is awaiting implementing regulations to be drafted by the USDA and lacks adequate funding.
"Our concerns about NVMSA are echoed in the GAO report, which indicates that officials from the USDA believe the money allocated to the program thus far is insufficient and would have minimal impact on the shortage." Dr. DeHaven said.
"I am confident that by working together, we can address these challenges, welcome more bright minds into the veterinary profession and provide our citizens the level of food safety and security they deserve and expect."