Federal agencies likely lack sufficient numbers of veterinarians necessary to mount an effective response to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and similar animal health emergencies. Moreover, the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, which employ the most federal veterinarians, do not know how many veterinarians would be needed in the event of a highly contagious or economically devastating animal disease.
The findings of a new report by the Government Accountability Office released in late May follow up on the agency identifying shortcomings in the federal veterinary workforce in 2009. Federal agencies employed about 2,100 veterinarians as of 2014, according to the report.
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The number of veterinarians working for the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services is insufficient to adequately respond in the event of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak or emergence of another economically devastating animal disease, according to a GAO analysis.
While the USDA and HHS have made progress in strengthening their veterinarian workforce planning efforts since then, the GAO concluded the veterinarian workforce still remains a concern.
The GAO said the USDA and HHS must do a better job of determining and addressing skill gaps and dealing with other human capital needs. Additionally, it said the Office of Personnel Management should give agencies direct-hire authority when a critical need for veterinarians emerges.
The National Association of Federal Veterinarians applauded the GAO report. “The NAFV is encouraging all federal agencies employing veterinarians to quickly assess their workforce capacities and capabilities to better prepare for emergencies and ensure they can assist other agencies when needed,” NAFV President Ken Angel said.
In a statement, the NAFV noted the United States already faces many challenges resulting from veterinary shortages at food production facilities. “Currently, the veterinary workforce in USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a 13 percent vacancy rate that is causing severe stress and workload burdens on existing personnel in food production facilities throughout the nation,” the association said.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the association added, has maximized its internal workforce response and is now calling on assistance from its National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps to control and contain the current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, the largest in U.S. history, which had killed 48 million poultry in the Midwest as of July 1.
GAO auditors evaluated workforce plans and other related documents from the USDA, HHS, and their component agencies that are major employers of civilian veterinarians. These component agencies include the USDA’s FSIS, APHIS, and Agricultural Research Service and HHS’ Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The USDA, according to the report, has done a better job than the HHS of making improvements. However, the USDA has no plans for how the department will augment its workforce to respond to a large-scale emergency. For example, in the event of an outbreak of FMD or the highly infectious exotic Newcastle disease, the department would not be well-positioned to respond, the GAO said.
While the USDA has made some estimates to determine its needs in such an emergency, the GAO said the numbers aren’t reliable. Its current workforce, the auditors added, is capable of handling only a routine workload.
The USDA said it agreed in part with the GAO recommendation for APHIS to conduct a veterinarian workforce assessment. In a response to the agency, the USDA explained that APHIS has learned that some of the best information to improve workforce planning models comes from real-world outbreaks, such as the ongoing avian influenza outbreak, which is producing new challenges requiring strategies that will be incorporated into the agency’s planning.
“The outbreak strategies and disease vectors currently employed for HPAI, and those employed during our response to exotic Newcastle disease, have produced useful insights into veterinarian adjustments for disease response,” the USDA said. “Specifically, this has caused APHIS to adjust its models to scale operations based on need and available veterinarian resources.”
The Office of Personnel Management said it would evaluate the need for direct-hire authority for veterinarians. This gives an agency the ability to hire, after public notice is given, any qualified applicant the hiring manager selects.