NIFA, LifeStock partner to promote federal programs addressing veterinary shortages

More applicants are being sought for the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program and the Veterinary Services Grant Program
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture hopes to raise awareness about opportunities for federal support for food animal veterinarians.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture hopes to raise awareness about opportunities for federal support for food animal veterinarians.

In rural areas of the country, the U.S. is facing a shortfall of veterinarians to treat livestock and poultry. In fact, only 3-4% of new veterinary graduates have entered food animal–related practice over the past 20 years, according to a report issued earlier this year. Comparatively, about 40% of graduates specialized in this area about 40 years ago.

The report, “Addressing the Persistent Shortage of Food Animal Veterinarians and Its Impact on Rural Communities” was commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation and authored by Clinton Neill, PhD, who was an assistant professor in veterinary economics for Cornell University’s Center of Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship. He is now a senior economist and associate director of strategic business research and outreach at the AVMA.

The paper’s findings indicate that more than 500 counties across the U.S. have shortages of food animal veterinarians. Shortages stem from several factors, including high levels of educational debt that have outpaced potential earnings, especially in the rural U.S.

The AVMA is committed to bringing awareness of rural shortages. To address this issue, the Association is urging Congress to pass the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act. Previously named the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, the bill would help increase access to food animal and public health veterinary services in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-designated rural areas by helping veterinarians with the obstacle of educational debt (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded over $111,000 to the nonprofit LifeStock International to promote two NIFA programs offering educational debt relief to veterinarians who commit to working in designated rural veterinary shortage areas, especially areas where food animal veterinary services are in short supply.

Help for program applicants

Over the next year, LifeStock will visit approximately a dozen U.S. veterinary colleges and four major animal health meetings to raise awareness about NIFA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) and the Veterinary Services Grant Program (VSGP), according to a USDA announcement.

The two NIFA programs are meant to ensure that veterinarians can provide essential food animal and public health medicine in USDA-designated veterinary shortage situations around the country. In 2023, the USDA declared 237 rural veterinary shortage areas in 47 states, which is more than any year to date. Since 2010, the USDA awarded 795 VMLRP awards to veterinarians.

Rural veterinary medicine is a struggling endeavor in the United States, according to Dr. Corrie Brown, founder and executive director of LifeStock, which works in developing countries to improve the livelihoods of livestock holders.

Many current food animal practitioners are approaching retirement, potentially leaving huge gaps in keeping national herds and flocks safe from disease, added Dr. Brown, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

“LifeStock’s message is: We know that food animal medicine may not offer the immediate financial rewards of pet animal medicine, but if food animal practice is where your heart is, NIFA is there to financially support you in a rural practice with a huge boost in loan repayment,” she said.

LifeStock is also offering subject matter experts to provide mentorship, training, and guidance to potential VMLRP and VSGP applicants through online remote support. NIFA awarded the yearlong grant to LifeStock in August with the goal of enhancing the visibility of the VMLRP and VSGP and easing the application process.

“A very big part of the LifeStock support function is to help those who are writing grants to these programs so that they can succeed and form the next generation of food animal practitioners, ensuring our national agricultural economy and food safety,” Dr. Brown said.

Past awardees

Authorized by Congress in 2003, the VMLRP helps qualified veterinarians by paying up to $25,000 per year towards repayment of educational loans in return for their service in certain high-priority food animal veterinary shortage areas.

NIFA paid nearly $9 million in 2022 to 89 veterinarians through the VMLRP. The awards were for 73 new VMLRP applicants and 16 program renewals, according to a NIFA report. 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 VSGP was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to fill gaps not fully met by VMLRP by offering grants for education, extension, and training (EET) and rural practice enhancement (RPE). Eligible applicants include universities, veterinary clinics operating in rural areas, veterinary associations, and state, local, or tribal agencies.

In 2022, NIFA awarded 12 grants for rural practice enhancement and eight grants for education, extension, and training. Congress appropriated $4 million to fund the VSGP for the federal fiscal year 2023.

Ultimately, both NIFA and LifeStock want to see better and more expanded animal health care delivery in the rural United States, leading to improved economics for producers and better protection against incursions of transboundary animal diseases, as well as enhanced food security for the nation.

State animal health officials have from October 2 to November 13 to submit nominations for locations to be designated as USDA veterinary shortage areas for next year. These shortage situation areas will be posted online February 2024.

A version of this story appears in the November 2023 print issue of JAVMA

Congress reintroduces federal legislation addressing rural veterinary shortages

After months of collaborative work by the AVMA, other stakeholder organizations, and congressional offices, the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act (S 2829/ HR 4355), formerly known as the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) Enhancement Act, was reintroduced in both the House and Senate on September 18.

The bipartisan legislation would end the current 39% federal withholding tax on the educational loan repayment awards the program offers. These awards can total up to $75,000 over three years in exchange for veterinarians serving in U.S. Department of Agriculture–designated shortage areas. If passed, it would make the tax treatment of the awards the same as for the analogous program for physicians and other human health care providers.

“Increasing veterinary services in high-priority rural areas through the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would help keep the nation’s livestock healthy and our food supply safe and secure, and protect public health,” said AVMA President Dr. Rena Carlson in a press release.

In the previous 117th Congress, the VMLRP Enhancement Act received its highest level of congressional support with 89 cosponsors. Senators Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, and Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, and Representatives Adrian Smith, a Republican from Nebraska, and John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, reintroduced the Rural Veterinary Workforce Act.

Senators Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican from Mississippi, and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, co-chairs of the first-ever Senate Veterinary Medicine Caucus, are among the cosponsors of the bill.

More information on how to apply for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program and the Veterinary Services Grants Program is available on NIFA’s website.