USDA awards $4.6 million for farm, public service

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The Department of Agriculture will help 51 veterinarians repay about $4.6 million worth of student loans in exchange for working in underserved rural areas or in shortage areas of public practice.

This year’s awards through the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program include 39 new awards and 12 renewals for veterinarians. They will work in 22 states. Each has to commit to work at least three years in a designated area with a shortage of veterinary services.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture will give a mean of $90,000 to each award winner, a figure that includes taxes paid on the award amounts. Veterinarians can receive up to $75,000 after taxes for loan repayment.

Among this year’s winners, 45 will need to provide food animal services and six must work in public practice.

Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD, director of NIFA, said the funding has been a huge benefit for previous recipients. At least one veterinarian in Iowa told him that, without the loan repayment program, his student loan debt would have prevented him from entering food animal practice.

Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD (Courtesy of USDA NIFA)

A NIFA announcement published in October states that the nation has substantial shortages of food animal veterinarians in some areas as well as shortages of veterinarians in specialty fields such as food safety, epidemiology, diagnostic medicine, and public health.

“A leading cause for this shortage is the heavy cost of four years of professional veterinary medical training, which leaves current graduates of veterinary colleges with an average debt burden of $134,470,” the announcement states.

Dr. Ramaswamy stressed that the VMLRP serves a critical need.

“Veterinarians end up being a significant part of being able to achieve that nutritional and food security that we talk about,” he said. “And so, the veterinary loan repayment program and the other research investments that we make, the extension efforts that we support, et cetera, are all a very critical part of getting from where we are today to where we need to be.”

The USDA is planning to collect data on previous award recipients to find out whether they intend to stay in the communities they have served in connection with their awards.

Dr. Ramaswamy said delivering such sustainability is a challenge. He noted that other programs have used similar terms to bring physicians into rural communities, and many have left once they finished their required years of service.

NIFA is considering collecting the data by conducting a survey of veterinarians in the VMLRP.

“Can we do follow-ups with the individuals that received funding, let’s say, a couple of years ago, see how they’re doing?” he said. “Are they on the right track?”

The AVMA is working to eliminate the 39 percent withholding tax on each award, a change intended to let the USDA provide more awards and provide service in more high-priority areas. The AVMA has also noted that a counterpart in human medicine, the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program, is exempt from federal taxation.

The AVMA is advocating for passage of the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, S. 553 and H.R. 1125, which would create withholding tax exemptions for state and federal awards that would repay or forgive veterinary education debt when the awards are intended to increase access to veterinary services.

Related JAVMA content:

Lawmakers seek tax exemption for veterinary program (April 15, 2013)