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September 15, 2020

Iowa governor signs veterinary debt repayment bill

Published on August 26, 2020
Dr. Shuey and young bovine patient
Dr. Ryan Shuey, an Iowa VMA young leader, works in rural Iowa. (Courtesy of Dr. Shuey)

The Iowa Legislature approved a bill to create the Rural Iowa Veterinarian Loan Repayment Program, and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill into law in June.

The push for the legislation was led by the Iowa VMA, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and several industry partners such as the Iowa Cattleman’s Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau. Iowa joins about 20 states that have similar loan repayment programs for rural and food animal veterinarians.

The $300,000 fund will award $15,000 a year in debt relief for at least four years, or $60,000, to each of the five veterinarians who commit to working in a rural area or an area with a veterinary shortage in the state.

Dr. Randy Wheeler, executive director of the Iowa VMA, said that when Dr. Dan Grooms, dean of the ISU veterinary college, was first appointed, they discussed starting a program. That was nearly two years ago.

“We could see there was a need,” said Dr. Wheeler, who has a background in rural veterinary medicine. “We started talking ... started working with lobbyists and doing research.”

A similar federal program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program, pays up to $25,000 each year toward educational loans of eligible veterinarians who agree to work in veterinary shortage areas for three years.

Veterinarians who graduated in 2019 and took out loans left school with a mean debt of $183,302, not including undergraduate debt. According to the AVMA, the mean starting salary for veterinarians is $76,633.

Ralph Johnson, CEO of Veterinary Medical Association Executives, said obtaining funding for loan repayment programs can be difficult, especially now because of COVID-19. He said it’s great Iowa got this bill passed.

The VMAE released the Ready. Set. Go! Tackle Education Debt Initiative to help VMAs with resources related to educational debt strategies, including funding options for repayment programs (see JAVMA, March 1, 2020).

“Budget things are different for states right now,” Johnson said. “It’s probably not the optimal environment for advancing a loan repayment program. But even if you can’t get the funding, do the framework.”

Dr. Wheeler suggested VMAs interested in creating a similar program look to neighboring states for best practices and remember this isn’t just about shortages.

“It is about student debt,” Dr. Wheeler said. “When students come out of school, the general thinking is that a small-town rural veterinarian is not going to have the salary that a metro small animal veterinarian at a large multiperson practice would have.”

The new Iowa program also authorized the creation of the Rural Veterinary Care Trust Fund, administered by the Iowa College Student Aid Commission, which can accept gifts, grants, and other private donations to fund more awards.

The new program prohibits applicants who are already participating in the federal repayment program.