The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) paid nearly $9 million in 2022 to ease the educational debt load of 89 veterinarians through the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP). The federal program is designed to shore up shortages in food animal practice or public practice. For years, the AVMA has successfully secured funding for the VMLRP.
The awards were for 73 new VMLRP applicants and 16 program renewals, according to a NIFA report (PDF). Most new program awardees (78%) and half of renewal awardees had over $100,000 in educational loan debt. Of those, nearly 47% carried a debt load exceeding $150,000, the report stated.
The VMLRP is designed to help increase access to food animal veterinary services in rural areas by assisting with the obstacle of educational debt. VMLRP awardees commit to providing at least three years of food animal veterinary services in a designated veterinary shortage area in return for payments of up to $25,000 of student loan debt per year with a maximum of $75,000 for a three-year contract.
NIFA has made 795 awards as new and renewal service agreements since the program was established by Congress in 2010. In that time, NIFA has received 2,061 applications from 1,451 unique applicants.
An audit of VMLRP from federal fiscal year (FY) 2010-21 identified approximately $1.5 million in additional funding, according to the report. So, in addition to VMLRP's annual appropriation of $8.5 million, the amount available for awards in FY2022 was $10 million. Of this, the program awarded $8,926,394.
In 2021, VMLRP awards totaling $7.5 million were made to 78 veterinarians.
Awardees and shortage situations
Applicants to VMLRP last year applied an average of 3.8 years after their year of graduation, with all applicants graduating between 2003-22.
The largest number of applicants had graduated from Iowa State University and Washington State University veterinary colleges with 16 each and Iowa State alumni receiving the most new awards totaling 10.
The VMLRP awards for FY2022 were for service in veterinary shortage areas in a total of 36 states. These shortage areas include eight each in California, Colorado, and Texas.
Thirteen awards are for type 1 shortages, at least 80% food animal practice. Sixty-nine awards are for type 2 shortages, at least 30% food animal practice in rural areas. Seven awards are for type 3 shortages, at least 49% public practice.
Of the 226 designated FY2022 shortage areas, NIFA made awards in 73, or 32.3% of the shortage areas. In addition, 16 renewal applicants received awards in previously designated shortage areas.
Federal taxation on VMLRP awards
Unlike similar programs for physicians and other human health care providers, VMLRP awards are federally taxed, meaning the USDA pays 39% of the annual congressional appropriation to the VMLRP. For years, the AVMA has pressed Congress to eliminate the tax by passing the bipartisan Rural Veterinary Workforce Act, formerly known as the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (VMLRPEA). On June 23, U.S. Reps Adrian Smith of Nebraska, John Larson of Connecticut, Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota, and Jimmy Panetta of California reintroduced the legislation in the House of Representatives.
By eliminating the federal tax, the AVMA says the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would maximize funding to the program as Congress intended and make additional awards available for veterinarians to serve in shortage areas.