Congress is considering legislation offering scholarships or debt assistance to veterinarians willing to work after graduation in areas where veterinary services are in scarce supply.
The legislation is modeled after the National Health Service Corps scholarship and loan repayment programs that provide financial incentives to medical, dental, and nursing students who agree to work for a time in underserviced parts of the country. Such opportunities are currently not available for veterinary students.
Mississippi Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr. introduced the Veterinary Health Enhancement Act (H.R. 1943) in May 2001. Nearly a dozen co-sponsors have signed on in support since then. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi introduced a companion bill (S. 1836) just prior to the Senate's adjournment in December.
The Senate version authorizes appropriations of up to $5 million for each program for every one of the fiscal years 2002 through 2006, whereas the most current version of the House bill does not specify an amount.
The AVMA supports the legislation, and its Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., is working to gain additional co-sponsors.
College tuition costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation, and newly graduated veterinarians are finding it increasingly difficult to repay student loans.
According to the results of one AVMA survey—Employment of male and female graduates of U.S. veterinary medical colleges, 2000—published in the March 15, 2001, JAVMA, the mean starting salary reported in 2000 by new graduates entering private practice was $42,646 for males and $41,360 for females. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges reports that, for the nation's 27 veterinary colleges, the median education debt is $67,152, and the mean education debt, $63,837.
Veterinarians now spend a considerably higher percentage of their monthly income to pay off student debt than their dentist or physician counterparts-10 percent versus 8.6 percent for dentists and 5.3 percent for physicians.
Veterinarians who participate in the loan repayment program could receive up to $35,000 of federal relief on the principal and interest of their school loans for every year they work in an area deemed to be lacking veterinary services.
The Secretary of Health and Human Services may determine such a shortage exists in certain urban and rural areas, a specific population, or a public or nonprofit private medical facility or other public facility.
The lack of veterinarians in rural and inner-city areas has a number of implications. In rural areas, for example, veterinarians play an important part in maintaining herd health and preventing the transmission of diseases that affect human and animal health. A paucity of veterinarians in underprivileged inner-city areas can result in a number of problems, including dog and cat overpopulation. Texas and Mississippi have passed state debt assistance programs for veterinary graduates who agree to serve in needed areas, but such needs exist also in other states where no programs exist.
California, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia have fewer veterinarians than the national average of 21 per 100,000 people, concluded a study of demographic trends of veterinary medicine in California (see JAVMA, June 1, 2000, page 1754). Of these states, only California and New York have colleges of veterinary medicine.
At press time in January, the House subcommittees on Health and on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development, and Research were evaluating Pickering's bill. The latter subcommittee has requested comment from the Department of Agriculture. In the Senate, the bill had been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.