AVMA Answers

Published on November 01, 2004
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On Dec. 6, 2003, President Bush signed the document that enacted the National Veterinary Medical Service Act as Public Law 108-161. The law authorizes the secretary of agriculture to enter into agreements with veterinarians who agree to provide veterinary services in shortage situations, in exchange for the secretary paying a specified amount of their qualifying veterinary educational loans. The law also authorizes additional loan repayments for veterinarians who provide services in emergency situations.

The AVMA has received hundreds of inquiries concerning the status of the loan repayment program and how individuals may apply to participate.

How can I apply for the educational loan repayment program in the National Veterinary Medical Service Act? My school loans are mounting, and I am graduating next spring.

 Dr. Raymond Stock, assistant director of the
AVMA Governmental Relations Division, responds:

Although the National Veterinary Medical Service Act was signed into law last December, there is no set amount of funding authorized, just "such sums as are necessary." This means that to start the program, money will have to be appropriated by Congress. An "earmark," or money appropriated specifically for NVMSA, needs to be included in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Only after money has been secured will the Department of Agriculture be able to commit the human resources to writing the rules and regulations as well as to pay for the participants' loans.

I understand that Congress is working on the various appropriations bills now. Can't they provide funding for NVMSA in the 2005 Agriculture Appropriations Bill?

The reality in Washington, right now, is that the budget for the Department of Agriculture is extremely tight. The 2005 Agriculture Budget is 8 percent below the previous year. This means that some presently existing programs will be cut or eliminated. To get appropriations specified for a new program like NVMSA, an offset would be necessary. This is difficult to achieve, because it requires the elimination or reduction of even more of the existing programs that are important to other agriculture interests. Thousands of requests were submitted by members of the House of Representatives for new agriculture programs in their 2005 Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Virtually none of these new programs were granted allocations.

The Senate passed its version of the bill in September, and it also did not include any funding for the program. In the section of the bill where the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee lists recommendations, however, the following language was entered: "National Veterinary Medical Service Act—The Committee encourages the Secretary to move forward with implementation of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act (Public Law 108-161). The Committee believes the Act will encourage veterinarians to provide services to rural and underserved areas of the United States."

Does this mean that the Department of Agriculture must start implementing NVMSA?

No; however, it does send a message to the USDA that Congress feels NVMSA has importance. As of mid-October, the House and Senate have not met in conference to determine the final version of the 2005 Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Given the pronounced fiscal restrictions in Washington this year, it is unlikely that final version will contain any allotment for NVMSA. Hopefully, the Senate's recommendation to the secretary of agriculture will remain in the final bill. This recommending language is a small step, but will be of value in the AVMA's continuing efforts to secure funding from Congress.

If Congress did assign the necessary funding to begin the program, how soon could I apply?

It would probably take about three years to complete the process of writing the rules and regulations, including a period for public comment. The year of your graduation will not affect your eligibility to apply. Veterinarians with veterinary educational debt will be able to apply at any time after graduation.

How much loan repayment will be provided? How long will we be required to provide services to a shortage or emergency situation? Where will those areas be?

None of the details of the program will be determined until the rule-making process is completed.

How can I help to move up the implementation of the NVMSA? Many veterinary students and recent graduates are interested in participating in the program.

Contact your senators and representatives by mail, e-mail, or phone. Advise them that there are many areas of the country where veterinarians are not able to practice and serve those communities. This is primarily because incomes available to veterinarians in those areas would make it difficult to repay educational debt. Mail is the most effective, and you can access sample letters on the AVMA Governmental Relation Division's Government Action Web site, www.capwiz.com/avma/home/.