Making their voices heard

Veterinarians and students lobby Congress for the profession
Published on March 30, 2016
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Story and photos by R. Scott Nolen

Almost 100 veterinarians and veterinary students lobbied congressional lawmakers earlier this year for student loan debt relief and against a veterinary prescription bill the AVMA describes as unnecessary. The convergence of veterinarians on Capitol Hill was the culmination of the eighth annual AVMA legislative visit to Washington, D.C., an intensive workshop hosted by the Association’s Governmental Relations Division, which trains participants as advocates for veterinary medicine.

This latest visit, held Feb. 28-March 1, drew a near-record 95 attendees, including 73 veterinary students and 18 veterinarians. A host of speakers educated participants about the federal legislative process and how political advocacy promotes and protects veterinarians and the animals they serve.

Participants in the eighth annual AVMA legislative visit on the steps of the Supreme Court

Florida’s delegate in the AVMA House of Delegates, Dr. Ernest Godfrey, has participated in three previous AVMA legislative visits. These annual events, he said, are immensely important because they empower veterinary students to be politically engaged. “The ability to educate congressmen and senators on how laws and regulations affect veterinary medicine is priceless,” said Dr. Godfrey, who is also treasurer of the AVMA Political Action Committee Board.

AVMA President Joe Kinnarney was one of three AVMA officers in attendance. “We are a small profession, but we are a highly respected profession by the public and on the Hill,” he said. “What makes us so effective is that when we speak to representatives and senators, we speak with one voice.”

On the final day of the visit, attendees met with members of Congress and their staff, requesting they prevent the Fairness to Pet Owners Act (HR 3174/S 1200) from becoming law. The bill would require veterinarians to provide a written copy of every prescription for a companion animal, regardless of whether the client needs or wants it. The AVMA says the mandate is unnecessary because clients already have the ability to fill a prescription at a pharmacy of their choice.

Veterinarians and veterinary students also requested better terms and conditions on federal student loans when the Higher Education Act is finally reauthorized. Congressional members and staff learned that 88 percent of veterinary students take out federal student loans and that the mean debt for veterinary graduates is just over $141,000. Potential remedies include eliminating origination fees on federal student loans, maintaining current annual and aggregate borrowing limits, and removing restrictions on refinancing.  

​​Clockwise from top left: Aaron Judson (Tuskegee ’19) and Denae Campanale (Florida ’18) listen as Rep. David Jolly from Florida’s 13th Congressional District speaks about the skyrocketing cost of advanced education. Dr. Rachel Cumberbatch shares her experiences as an AVMA Fellow currently working as an adviser to Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. Representatives Kurt Schrader and Ted Yoho, two of three veterinarians currently serving in the House of Representatives, offer advice on how veterinarians can be more engaged in the political process. Natalie Heitz (Auburn ’18), second from the right, and Allison Siu (Auburn ’19), right, make their case for student loan relief to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul, recently a Republican presidential candidate, said during their meeting that his niece is a veterinary student at Cornell University.

Following the legislative visit, Student AVMA President-elect Matt Holland, a third-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois, sought support for retaining the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program in its current form by means of a petition, although the deadline passed without the petition meeting the signature requirements. The loan forgiveness program offers student debt relief in exchange for working in public service; potential budget cuts have put its future in doubt, however.

Natalie Heitz, a second-year veterinary student at Auburn University, attended the AVMA legislative visit because she wants to one day be a voice for the equine industry. “This experience truly inspired me,” Heitz said. “It opened my eyes to a larger role we as veterinarians have to impact the veterinary profession. I hope one day to make a difference in the betterment of animals, veterinarians, and the public.”  

Related JAVMA content:

Calling on Congress (May 1, 2015)