Addressing rural veterinary gaps: A must for animal and public health

Two veterinarians talking outside

The bipartisan Rural Veterinary Workforce Act (H.R. 4355/S. 2829) is essential legislation to protect both animals and people by expanding availability of veterinary care in designated rural shortage areas. It would safeguard our nation’s food supply, help ensure public health, and strengthen animal health infrastructure—all critical to animal and human welfare.

What’s the problem?

More rural areas than ever before are challenged to recruit and retain veterinarians, leading to shortages. These shortages, recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), could jeopardize animal and public health, endanger food safety and the agricultural economy, and compromise our ability to prevent and combat diseases.

Being able to retain veterinarians in these areas is key to addressing rural veterinary shortages. A significant component is the educational debt facing America’s veterinarians. More than 80% of veterinarians graduate with student loan debt, which averages more than $185,000. Because careers in food animal and public health medicine typically pay less than companion animal practice, the earning disparity can make it financially difficult or even impossible for veterinarians to pursue or remain in food animal and public health careers.

The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), established in 2003 by Congress, has been highly successful in helping attract veterinarians into USDA-designated rural veterinary shortage areas by repaying up to $75,000 in educational debt in exchange for their service. However, unlike similar programs for physicians and other human health care providers, VMLRP awards are federally taxed. The USDA is required to pay the tax on behalf of the award recipient, so a large portion of the program’s funding goes for this purpose—instead of being used to bring more veterinarians into rural areas.

Although the VMLRP has helped move 795 veterinarians into rural shortage areas since its creation, the program has received more than 2,000 applications in that same period. Applications exceeded available funding in 2023, although the number of rural shortages was at a record high: 237 shortages in 47 states.

What would the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act do?

The legislation would end federal taxation on VMLRP awards and attract and retain  more veterinarians to practice in USDA-designated shortage areas:

  • The bill would stop the recycling of congressionally appropriated VMLRP funding now paid by the USDA to the U.S. Treasury Department for taxes.
  • It would allow the USDA to provide an additional VMLRP award for every three currently made, without any supplemental appropriations.

For full details of the bill, review the AVMA’s issue brief on the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act.

Who supports the legislation?

The bill received its highest level of congressional support ever in the last Congress, with 89 cosponsors across both chambers. Currently, a bipartisan group of 45 senators and representatives cosponsor the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act. Working with stakeholder groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council, the AVMA is strengthening outreach to Congress to urge passage of the legislation.

Why does the AVMA support the bill?

Increasing veterinary services in high-priority rural areas through the passage of the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would help keep the nation’s livestock healthy, our food supply safe and secure, and protect public health. Maximizing funding to the VMLRP helps pave the way to address the current, historically high level of rural veterinary shortages.

The AVMA urges Congress to help address rural veterinary shortages by passing the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act.

More information