Veterinary push for Farm Bill, Higher Education Act

Annual legislative visit brings scores of veterinarians to nation's capital
Published on May 09, 2018

Nearly 100 veterinarians and veterinary students traveled to Capitol Hill this March as part of the annual AVMA legislative fly-in. These U.S. residents came from 37 states and every veterinary school in the country as well as schools in Canada and the Caribbean. They met with staffers at their congressional offices to discuss two issues of particular importance to the veterinary profession: the 2018 Farm Bill and reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

2018 Legislative Fly-in attendees
Attendees of the AVMA annual legislative fly-in, including AVMA President Michael Topper and Student AVMA President Sarah Neuser (front row, second and third from right)

"Right now, Congress is debating issues that will have a serious impact on the future of the veterinary profession," AVMA President Michael Topper said. "Ultimately, their decisions will determine whether veterinarians are able to afford their educations and effectively do their jobs. Lawmakers need to hear directly from our profession on these policies, which is why we're bringing our members and veterinary students to the Hill."

Before heading to Capitol Hill on March 27, fly-in attendees spent a day preparing for their meetings and hearing from veterinary leaders.

Attendees asked Congress to help prevent animal disease outbreaks by establishing and funding a three-pronged measure: an animal pest, disease, and disaster prevention and response program; a stronger National Animal Health Laboratory Network; and a U.S. Livestock Vaccine Bank with immediate priority given to foot-and-mouth disease. Attendees also requested that Congress support programs improving animal agriculture and animal health, as outlined in the AVMA's Farm Bill priorities. The United States' stake in the existing North American FMD Vaccine Bank, shared with Canada and Mexico, is adequate to respond only to a localized FMD outbreak. The requested bank would be specific to the U.S., be able to readily provide vaccine, and have the production surge capacity to respond to much larger FMD outbreaks. Further, this bank would be able to provide vaccines to combat other animal disease outbreaks in the future.

"When it comes to food animals, veterinarians play a key role in ensuring animals remain healthy so we have a safe and nutritious food supply," said Dr. Lauren Stump, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division.

"The Farm Bill can enhance our ability to protect against animal disease outbreaks like avian influenza or foot-and-mouth disease, and make veterinarians better able to safeguard animal health. We need this proposed, proactive approach to help us avoid future high-consequence disease outbreaks."

In early April, following the introduction of the Farm Bill by the House Committee on Agriculture, Dr. Topper praised the committee for including several veterinary priorities.

"We appreciate the committee's work and are also pleased with the bill's reauthorization of programs that advance animal health and welfare through important research and data gathering," Dr. Topper said.

Minnesota veterinary students in Washington, D.C.
Minnesota veterinary students speak to a staffer (at window) of Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota about potential amendments to the Higher Education Act and their impacts on veterinary student debt.

"We are continuing to analyze the bill and look forward to working with Congress to ensure these new programs are permanent and to protect veterinary priorities such as providing rural farmers with access to veterinary medicine."

Fly-in attendees also asked Congress to support the AVMA's Higher Education Act principles, with a focus on preserving the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and loan options through Grad PLUS. These programs play a vital role in enabling veterinarians to fund their educations, which is increasingly important as educational debt has risen.

"Today, veterinarians graduate with an average of around $140,000 in student debt, or approximately $167,000 when considering only students with debt," said Alex Sands, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division.

"If lawmakers remove loan options tailored to meet the needs of graduate students like veterinarians, we're afraid we're going to see more veterinarians forgoing critical public service or rural careers because they simply can't afford to manage their educational debt on the lower salaries often associated with those jobs. Congress needs to consider these consequences when reauthorizing the Higher Education Act."

To prepare attendees for their visits to Capitol Hill, the AVMA's three congressional fellows shared their experiences and insights as participants in the legislative process. On the panel were Dr. Radhika Gharpure, who serves in the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and works on public health and health care; Dr. Matt Holland, who serves in the office of Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and works on gun safety and immigration; and Dr. Mark Logan, who serves in the office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and works on wildlife conservation, agriculture, small business, and nutrition.

They have been in Washington, D.C., since this past August and will spend a year as full-time staff in the congressional members' offices as policy advisers for a range of issues. The fellowship program is sponsored through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which works to place qualified scientific experts in congressional offices where they are needed. The AVMA also provides funding for the program. To date, more than 65 veterinarians have participated in the AVMA Fellowship Program.

AVMA congressional fellows
AVMA congressional fellows Drs. Mark Logan, Matt Holland, and Radhika Gharpure brief fly-in attendees on effective ways of presenting their issues to congressional staff.

Originally from Plainsboro, New Jersey, Dr. Gharpure is a 2016 graduate of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. As a veterinary student, she had the opportunity to intern with several national and international public health organizations, including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She was a 2015 student extern with the AVMA Governmental Relations Division. Dr. Gharpure recently completed her master's degree in public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she focused on epidemiology and infectious diseases. Her professional interests include emerging and neglected zoonoses, outbreak response, and global health policy.

Dr. Holland graduated in the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine class of 2017. Originally from Libertyville, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, he came to veterinary medicine as a second career. After receiving his bachelor's in radio and television journalism from Drake University in 2007, he worked as a television producer for various media outlets in Chicago and New York City, including the Big Ten Network, Major League Baseball Network, and Chicago Bears.

Between sport seasons, he spent free time working with animals and ultimately decided to pursue his passion in the field of veterinary medicine.

During veterinary school, Dr. Holland served as president of the Student AVMA while pursuing a master's in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through his journalism background and experiences in organized veterinary medicine and public health, he recognized the need for health communicators at the intersection of science and policy. He said he is thrilled to pursue this work by serving in the AVMA Fellowship Program.

Dr. Logan graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1983 and moved to Cape May Court House, New Jersey, to begin a 34-year career in private small animal practice. He has served as volunteer staff veterinarian at the Wetlands Institute of Stone Harbor, New Jersey, for more than 30 years, providing advice and consultations for aquatic species in the exhibits, support for the diamondback terrapin project, and shell fracture repairs for more than a thousand female terrapins injured while crossing coastal boulevards.

Dr. Logan was elected president of the New Jersey VMA in 2001, was appointed to the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in 2002 and subsequently reappointed by governors of both parties, and was elected president of the board each year over the past decade.

Additionally, Dr. Logan has been a member of the board of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, where he advises on policy and planning, supports fundraising efforts, and provides veterinary insight on planning and new projects. He also served on the board of directors for the American Veterinary Medical Law Association and continues as a member of the organization.

Financial support for the AVMA legislative fly-in, March 27 in Washington, D.C., was provided by Banfield Pet Hospital.