President signs bill assisting veterinary graduates with debt load

Student loan repayment offered to veterinarians working in underserved areas
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The AVMA marked its second legislative victory in a month with the Senate's passage of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act on Nov. 24. Earlier in the month, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill, which authorizes the Department of Agriculture to provide student loan repayments to recent veterinary graduates who agree to work in underserved areas of the country. President Bush signed the bill Dec. 6.

Also in November, another of the AVMA's legislative priorities, the Animal Drug User Fee Act, became law. The measure allows the Food and Drug Administration to collect annual user fees totaling $43 million over five years, beginning with $5 million in 2004. This allows for the hiring and training of additional scientific reviewers and implementation of enhanced processes to accelerate and improve the review of new animal drugs (see JAVMA, Dec. 15, 2003, page 1711).

The AVMA had identified the National Veterinary Medical Service Act as one of its legislative priorities. It will place veterinarians in areas in need of veterinary health care by offering veterinary students grants to help repay educational debts.

"This act is good for the country, good for livestock and companion animal owners, good for our profession, and a step in the right direction to assist new graduates with their huge debt load," said Dr. Michael Chaddock, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C.

On Nov. 17, the House passed the National Veterinary Medical Service Act that had been sponsored by Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering. "This legislation is a commonsense solution to our veterinarian shortage in many areas of this country," Pickering said.

Days before the House vote, Sen. Thad Cochran, also of Mississippi, introduced the Senate version that passed by unanimous consent. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a co-sponsor of Cochran's bill, said rural areas of his home state are experiencing shortages of veterinarians, especially in large animal practices.

"Veterinarians not only care for sick animals and prevent dangerous animal diseases, they also monitor and inspect a large portion of our food supply to ensure it is safe and wholesome," Harkin said.

The two veterinarians in the Senate—Wayne Allard of Colorado and John Ensign of Nevada—also signed on as co-sponsors.

Eligible students will enter into agreements with the secretary of agriculture for a period of time and amount of repayment of educational loans determined by the secretary in exchange for the veterinarian's service in a shortage area including rural regions and inner-city areas.

High educational debt is a determining factor in where many recent veterinary graduates choose to practice. The relatively low salaries that veterinarians can expect in some agricultural regions, as well as in some inner cities, often preclude them from accepting positions in those areas.

In some cases, loan payments can require one-third of monthly income. Economics ultimately determine where many veterinarians practice. The result is dramatic shortages of veterinarians in critical areas.

In addition, agencies such as the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service have had difficulty recruiting veterinarians to satisfy staffing needs. It is anticipated that the shortfall of trained veterinarians in those agencies will continue to worsen.

The National Veterinary Medical Service Act will grant the secretary of agriculture the discretion to place veterinarians in areas of need, including government service.

The legislation will also create a "National Guard" of veterinarians. In exchange for additional debt repayment, eligible students can enter into additional agreements with the secretary to assist the USDA in addressing disease outbreaks, bioterrorist threats, or similar emergency situations.

"With the growing threat of bioterrorism and fears of foreign diseases like 'mad cow,' this bill would create the manpower for a veterinarian 'National Guard' that would serve as our front-line defense and intelligence service for animal health concerns," Pickering added.

Once the National Veterinary Medical Service Act is law, the AVMA GRD will focus on the appropriation process. It will be necessary to impress the importance of adequate funding to appropriators in both the House and Senate.