Dr. Britt E. Stubblefield started a large animal practice in rural Colorado last year. Dr. Dina J. Scotto is starting a food animal practice in Rhode Island this year. Also in rural Colorado, Dr. Shane F. Porter is an associate veterinarian paying down his educational debt and looking toward someday becoming a practice owner himself.
Each of them owes thanks to the fledgling federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.
The VMLRP has since fall 2010 provided grants to these veterinarians and more than a hundred other food animal practitioners, mixed animal practitioners in rural areas, and veterinarians in public practice. The program repays part of veterinarians' student loans in return for work in shortage situations.
During the first round of the VMLRP, more than 50 veterinarians signed contracts with the Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to participate in the program. On Feb. 1, NIFA announced the second round of grants, with nearly 80 veterinarians signing contracts.
In spring 2011, a committee of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners concluded that efforts to increase interest in rural practice have been successful, and the remaining underserved areas might not be able to sustain veterinary practices. Gina Luke of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, who advocates for the VMLRP on behalf of the AVMA, countered that many shortage situations in rural areas remain difficult but possible to fill.
"Veterinarians and especially our food animal veterinarians are critical to our national food safety and our food security and to the health and well-being of both animals and humans," said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, PhD, acting NIFA director. "We're working very closely with our livestock producers and our state and federal officials to help provide a front line of defense against the spread of diseases."
State animal health officials nominate veterinary shortage situations for the VMLRP. Veterinarians who apply to fill a shortage must commit to three years of service. Each year, participants receive up to $25,000 in student loan repayments plus payments to offset taxation of the grants.
Dr. Dina J. Scotto has been able to start a solo food animal practice in Rhode Island partly because of her participation in the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which repays a portion of veterinarians' student loans in return for work in shortage. Here, Dr. Scotto (at right) works with Hilary Fox, a pre-veterinary student at the University of Rhode Island, drawing blood from a chicken and examining sheep at the university's Peckham Farm. (Photos courtesy of Anna M. Quaintance)
For the first round of grants, NIFA made 62 awards totaling $6 million, with 53 veterinarians signing contracts. For the second round, NIFA awarded 80 grants totaling $7.7 million, with 78 veterinarians signing contracts.
The second round is allowing 33 states, Puerto Rico, and certain federal lands to each fill at least one shortage situation. Those receiving the most grants were Montana, which is filling six shortages, and Nebraska and Texas, which are each filling five.
With this round, 18 participants are working in type 1 shortage situations, defined as at least 80 percent food animal practice. Forty-nine participants are working in type 2 situations, defined as at least 30 percent food animal practice in rural areas. Eleven participants are working in type 3 situations, defined as at least 49 percent public practice.
Dr. Jacobs-Young said the VMLRP helps ensure that rural areas have access to veterinary services.
"I think it serves as an idea, one mechanism on how we can address the shortages in the pipeline for specific areas of need," she said.
A number of state governments also have begun programs that help repay student loans for veterinarians who work in areas that lack veterinary services.
Growing up around cattle and horses in central Tennessee, Dr. Stubblefield long had an interest in large animal medicine. He moved to Colorado to work in feedlots, but his career took a detour when he entered the recreation industry, where he worked in management. He then earned his veterinary degree from Colorado State University in 2010.
Dr. Stubblefield after graduation established Rocky Top Veterinary Service as a solo ambulatory large animal practice serving several counties in rural Colorado. His becoming a VMLRP participant not long afterward has helped with startup costs.
"I struggled a lot until I started receiving payments," Dr. Stubblefield said. "Just like any new business, it's a struggle to start."
He made contact with local cattle producers' associations and 4-H clubs to spread the word about his availability. Business has built up in small spurts. His practice currently is about 45 percent bovine, 45 percent equine, and 10 percent miscellaneous.
Dr. Stubblefield averages 150 or more miles of driving per day and, at times, works long hours, usually remaining available for emergencies. Nevertheless, he really enjoys his job and the beauty of the area.
I guess I could make more money elsewhere, but I don't think I would be as happy as I am where I am now.
Dr. Britt E. Stubblefield, a participant in the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program who started a large animal practice in rural Colorado
"I guess I could make more money elsewhere, but I don't think I would be as happy as I am where I am now," Dr. Stubblefield said.
Judging by his business, he believes the area needs and can sustain a large animal practitioner.
Dr. Scotto also grew up around livestock and had an abiding interest in livestock medicine. Her first career was in human medicine working in clinical laboratory science. She shifted back to animals and earned her veterinary degree in 2008 from Kansas State University, then worked at a mixed animal practice in Massachusetts.
During veterinary college, Dr. Scotto had worked with the state veterinarian in her native Rhode Island, so she was familiar with livestock needs in the area.
"There is a lack of veterinarians in the state willing to practice food animal medicine on a regular basis," Dr. Scotto said. Small animal practitioners can refer emergencies to emergency facilities, she said, and can see more patients per hour at a clinic than a large animal practitioner can on the road.
Now, as a VMLRP participant, Dr. Scott has been able to establish Country Critters Veterinary Services as a solo mobile practice providing services for food animals throughout Rhode Island.
"I feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to do, and the program enabled me to do it," Dr. Scotto said.
Rhode Island has discontinued many veterinary services that the state once provided for farmers, and Dr. Scotto is hoping to educate farmers about the necessity of paying for the services. She is planning workshops for dairy farmers to discuss how a veterinarian can act as a consultant on herd health to improve profitability.
Dr. Porter comes from a background in animal agriculture, with his family raising cattle and swine in western Colorado. Acceptance to veterinary college took a while, so he completed master's degrees in animal science and business administration. He earned his veterinary degree in 2010 from Oklahoma State University.
It's a great job. I'm learning as I go and increasing my skills, getting people to trust me. It's a great way to make a living.
Dr. Shane F. Porter, a VMLRP participant who works at a mixed animal practice in rural Colorado
While looking for a job in food or mixed animal practice in his home state, Dr. Porter learned that taking a position as an associate veterinarian at Limon Veterinary Clinic in eastern Colorado would qualify as filling a shortage situation under the VMLRP. He was hired for the position, and he later became a VMLRP participant.
The practice, in the small town of Limon, is about half food animal and half small animal. The owner of the practice and Dr. Porter each spend time on the road and at the clinic.
"It's a great job. I'm learning as I go and increasing my skills, getting people to trust me," Dr. Porter said. "It's a great way to make a living."
The VMLRP will allow Dr. Porter to pay down his substantial educational debt, putting him in a position to become a practice owner.
"There are a lot of small-town practices for sale, but the graduates have so much debt that just buying a practice soon after school is very difficult," Dr. Porter said.
The AVMA advocated for the establishment of the VMLRP and continues to advocate for funding of the program.
The Association strongly supports the VMLRP as well as state and private loan repayment programs that seek to increase access to veterinary services in areas of need, said Luke, an assistant director in the AVMA Governmental Relations Division. Student loan repayment is one incentive to recruit veterinarians to these areas.
The VMLRP is a small but helpful program, Luke said. The ideal long-term outcome would be for participants to remain in areas with shortages after completing the program.
"The hope is that we can get the right people in the right places to provide the services that are needed," Luke said. "It may be difficult to make a living in some of these areas, so the loan repayment program helps to take one burden off of their shoulders."
Luke said the VMLRP has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The AVMA will continue advocating for funding, despite federal budget constraints.
In addition, the AVMA is advocating for VMLRP grants to be tax-exempt, possibly allowing the USDA to offer a fourth year of loan repayment or to offer more grants.