Washington, D.C.—On Friday, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Chief Executive Officer Dr. Ron DeHaven called on Congress to pass the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (H.R. 1125/S. 553) as part of any tax legislation it tackles this year. In an op-ed published in The Hill’s Congress Blog, DeHaven said that Congress has an opportunity to help more ranchers and farmers get the veterinary care they need to keep their livestock healthy and our food supply safe.
The full text of the op-ed can be found below or on The Hill’s website. Learn more about the bill on AVMA’s website.
Congress should let more veterinarians serve America’s communities
By: Ron DeHaven, DVM
Imagine you are a dairy farmer in rural Wisconsin who desperately needs a veterinarian to care for your cows and ensure the safety of the milk products produced on your farm. Unfortunately, roughly 180 areas across the United States are suffering from a severe shortage of essential veterinary services. But there is a program and a bill before Congress that can address this critical need.
The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) places livestock and public health veterinarians in underserved areas of the country in exchange for paying off up to $25,000 annually in that veterinarian’s student loans. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the VMLRP has, since 2010, successfully placed 205 veterinarians in 45 states, Puerto Rico and on U.S. federal lands to help farmers and ranchers ensure the health and welfare of their livestock, protect food safety and guard our country against harmful diseases. However, more veterinarians could serve our nation’s communities if the VMLRP were exempt from the withholding tax, thus freeing up financial resources that could go toward funding additional recipients.
That’s where the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (S. 553/H.R. 1125) comes into play. This important federal legislation would eliminate the tax on the VMLRP, following a similar precedent established by its counterpart program for human medicine—the National Health Services Corps’ loan repayment program.
Congress currently appropriates $4.8 million annually for the VMLRP, but unfortunately the full amount is not used to get veterinarians into communities that need their services. VMLRP awards are subject to a 39 percent withholding tax, meaning Uncle Sam—before any veterinarian receives an award—takes back 39 cents of every dollar that he gives to this vital program. If that money was left in the program, more veterinarians per year would be able to participate in the program and more communities could be reached.
Not only would our nation’s ranchers and farmers gain access to the veterinary care they need if this bill passes, but more veterinarians could establish practices in rural communities while paying off some of their student debt. Since Congress first authorized the VMLRP 11 years ago, the average graduating debt for veterinarians has more than doubled from $76,558 in 2003 to $162,113 in 2013.
For the last several years, the American Veterinary Medical Association, along with more than 150 animal, agricultural and veterinary medicine organizations, has urged Congress to support this bill. To date, only 58 members of Congress have stepped forward in support of this important legislation. With nearly every state calling on the USDA for veterinary care, it is unbelievable that more of our elected officials have not come forward to represent the rural communities within their districts that suffer from a dearth in veterinary services.
Congress has a real opportunity to include S. 553/H.R. 1125 in any tax legislation that it aims to pass this year. It’s time for Congress to ensure that every American community has adequate access to veterinary care. Our ranchers and farmers depend on it to keep their livestock healthy and our food supply safe, healthy and plentiful.
DeHaven is the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association and former administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.