Eagerly anticipated rules implementing the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, authorized by the National Veterinary Medical Service Act passed more than six years ago, have at long last been published in the July 9 Federal Register.
According to the interim rule notice, the Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service will designate geographic and practice areas experiencing a shortage of food supply veterinarians as a step in carrying out the program goals of strengthening the nation's animal health infrastructure and supplementing the federal response during animal health emergencies.
Additionally, the agency will make educational loan repayment agreements with veterinarians who choose to provide veterinary services in veterinarian shortage situations for a determined period of time.
The AVMA has strongly advocated for the loan repayment program, including testifying before Congress about how the program can help alleviate the growing shortage of veterinarians working in needed areas, such as food animal medicine.
Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, said the USDA will in September begin querying state health officials about their underserved areas. It is expected CSREES will begin accepting applications to the program by February or March of 2010, he added.
"This loan repayment program has great potential to address the significant impediment that educational debt poses to veterinarians who wish to practice in underserved areas. We are pleased that the USDA has moved forward with the program," Dr. Lutschaunig said.
Since its enactment, Congress has appropriated about $4.8 million for CSREES to administer the program. The agency expects to award this amount in the inaugural cycle and anticipates that future funding will be based on annual appropriations and balances from prior years, which will likely vary from year to year.
CSREES has designed the program on the basis of input from the AVMA and other stakeholders and with consideration to the available funding, experiences with other federal loan repayment programs, and the goals of the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.
The agency plans to award each veterinarian $25,000 per year in loan repayments for a minimum of three or four years, plus an amount sufficient to cover the additional tax liability. The agency believes this is an adequate incentive to induce program participants to relocate to veterinarian shortage situations critical to the security of the nation's food supply and the health and safety of people, food animals, and the environment.
The agency anticipates that about 40 Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program agreements will be executed the first year.
Interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on the interim rule. The AVMA will submit comments. Among the Association's early concerns is the ineligibility of veterinarians who have consolidated their student loans. Comments must be received no later than Sept. 8, 2009, to be considered.
CSREES is also considering a small pilot program whereby a limited number of NVMSA participants will receive an additional $5,000 if they agree to serve during pandemics, zoonotic outbreaks, or other food supply emergencies.