There are veterinarians who want to work in rural areas of America but are unable to do so—for financial reasons. The great news is that legislation pending in Congress would make it more feasible for them.
The bill, already boasting support from more than 100 stakeholder groups, is called the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act. If passed, this commonsense legislation would extend the reach of the popular Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) to help more food animal and public health veterinarians relocate to rural areas facing veterinary shortages. The best part: It would expand the available dollars for the program without additional funding.
What is VMLRP?
VMLRP helps veterinarians set up practice in locations designated as veterinary shortage areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It does this by promising to pay off up to $75,000 of each veterinarian’s student loans if they practice in the shortage area for three years. Since the program’s inception in 2010, it has helped move 795 veterinarians into areas with veterinary shortages.
Unfortunately, there are still shortages. The need in rural America has outstripped VMLRP’s ability to respond—so far. The USDA currently recognizes veterinary shortages in a record-high 237 rural areas in 47 different states.
The bipartisan Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would go a long way to rectify the situation. Simply by treating VMLRP awards the same as equivalent awards made to physicians and other human health care providers, it would free up significant funds for new recipients. It could move more veterinarians into need areas without any additional budget being required.
That’s because the USDA is required to pay the federal tax on VMLRP awards on behalf of award recipients. All told, the department pays an additional 39% of each of the VMLRP’s annual awards just for taxes. The Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would end that requirement, making all of that funding available to bring additional veterinarians into the program.
Debunking other proposed “solutions”
There’s never been a more important time to attract more veterinarians to rural America. However, the lack of veterinarians in specific areas is also unfortunately fueling broad-reaching proposals for changes in how veterinary medicine is regulated and delivered—proposals that would put the health and safety of both animals and people at risk. Two proposals, in particular, are deeply concerning:
- There are calls for creation of a new midlevel position that could allow non-veterinarians to diagnose, prognose, make treatment recommendations, prescribe, or perform surgery.
- Multiple states are considering proposals to allow the VCPR to be established virtually, without an in-person examination or premises visit.
These proposals present grave risks to animal health and welfare, as well as public health, which AVMA President Dr. Rena Carlson has described here. They also carry special perils for rural America.
For example, introducing a midlevel position might further reduce the business sustainability of rural veterinary practices, worsening existing shortage situations rather than solving them. In fact, both the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the American Association of Equine Practitioners join the AVMA in opposing creation of a midlevel position.
And while some proponents of a fully virtual VCPR argue that it would increase rural access to veterinary care via telehealth services, they overlook the reality that rural areas are more likely to lack the digital technology and broadband infrastructure needed to support telemedicine. Additionally, those animals that are not seeing a veterinarian regularly are also those more likely to have issues that require an in-person evaluation to resolve.
Rural veterinary workforce challenges are of particular concern in food animal production. While some have argued that adding more veterinarians to the profession’s pipeline will help ease these challenges, the reality is that about 75% of veterinary graduates become companion animal practitioners. Simply increasing the number of veterinarians entering the profession will not address the unique needs of rural, large-animal practitioners.
Support the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act
The Rural Veterinary Workforce Act, on the other hand, builds on a proven program that already has brought more veterinarians to rural America. If you recognize the need to attract more veterinarians to rural areas, please help support its passage. Send a letter asking your members of Congress to support this bill. Personalized letters from constituents have the greatest impact on Congress, so please personalize your letter with any stories you have about the importance of the VMLRP and the need to pass the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act.