Veterinary public health, tax elimination bills back before Congress

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Congress has once again taken up legislation intended to increase the number of veterinarians trained in public health.

Lawmakers are also considering a proposal to eliminate a tax on a new federal program that offers veterinarians relief from their educational debt in exchange for working in underserved areas.

Both bills—the Veterinary Public Health Amendments Act (H.R. 525) and Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (S. 518)—were introduced in the previous Congress but failed to pass before the session expired.

On March 8, the House of Representatives passed the Veterinary Public Health Amendments Act with bipartisan support. Introduced by Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, H.R. 525 would amend the Public Health Service Act to offer school loan repayments for veterinarians who commit to teaching or working in public health.

The AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges say H.R. 525 is necessary to alleviate a critical national shortage of public health veterinarians. A 2009 study by the Government Accountability Office on the veterinary workforce indicated that the shortage will worsen as a result of space constraints at the 28 U.S. veterinary schools and colleges.

Public health veterinarians are on the front line guarding the nation against zoonoses such as the H1N1 virus, Baldwin noted. "They inspect our slaughterhouses, prevent a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak from devastating our economy and our agriculture industry, and protect our citizens against the threat of bioterrorism," the congresswoman said.

The Veterinary Public Health Amendments Act would open the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program to public health veterinarians and veterinary students studying public health at an accredited academic institution. The program would provide loan repayment of up to $35,000 per year for three years for veterinarians who agree to serve in a federal, state, local, or tribal public health agency or a related training fellowship.

The Public Health Workforce Grants program awards grants or contracts to eligible entities to increase the number of individuals in the public health workforce, to enhance the quality of the public health workforce, and to enhance the ability of the workforce to meet national, state, and local health care needs.

H.R. 525 would amend the PHSA to define veterinary public health to include veterinarians engaged in one or more of the following areas, to the extent such areas have an impact on human health: biodefense and emergency preparedness, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, environmental health, ecosystem health, pre- and post-harvest food protection, regulatory medicine, diagnostic laboratory medicine, veterinary pathology, biomedical research, the practice of food animal medicine in rural areas, and government practice.

The bill was referred to the Senate, where it is being considered by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

On March 9, Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho introduced the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act along with 12 bipartisan supporters.

The bill aims to ease a shortage of veterinarians working in rural areas by making the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program tax exempt, thereby increasing the number of veterinarians who can participate in the program.

Unlike the counterpart program in human medicine, Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program awards are currently subject to 39 percent federal taxation. The Department of Agriculture pays these taxes to the U.S. Treasury out of the money Congress appropriates for the program, decreasing the amount of funds available to award to participants enrolled in the program.

Fifty-four veterinarians from shortage areas around the country joined the program in 2009. About 20 more veterinarians per cycle could be selected to practice in a shortage area if the VMLRP were tax-exempt.

"I know that we have a lot on our plate during this session of Congress, but we can't let this problem go unsolved," Johnson said. "The demand for veterinarians is continuing to grow at a time when some communities already lack a practicing veterinarian. This is simply unsustainable, especially when the livelihood of our producers depends on the health of their livestock. We can increase the number of veterinarians placed in underserved and shortage areas by one-third if this bill becomes law."

Nearly 140 animal, agricultural, and veterinary organizations nationwide support the bill's passage, including the AVMA.

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