USDA awards $7.5M for loan repayment to address shortage areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Jan. 12 that it made awards totaling $7.5 million to 78 veterinarians in 2021 toward repayment of veterinary student loans in return for service in shortage areas in food animal practice or public practice.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture made the awards through the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The VMLRP pays up to $25,000 per year towards repayment of educational loans of veterinarians who agree to serve in a NIFA-designated veterinary shortage situation for a period of three years.

The USDA pays 37% of the federal funding provided to the VMLRP to cover a withholding tax. The AVMA continues to lobby Congress to eliminate the tax by passing the bipartisan Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, reintroduced last year in the House of Representatives (HR 2447) and the Senate (S 2215).

Drs. Onofryton (left) and Hickey collect tissue samples from returning coho salmon
Drs. Katherine Onofryton (left) and Nora Hickey, veterinarians with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in the state of Washington, collect tissue samples from returning coho salmon for pathogen surveillance at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s hatchery. Both are awardees through the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program for service in shortage areas. (Photo by Tiffany Royal/NWIFC)

Among recent VMLRP awardees in public practice are Drs. Nora Hickey and Katherine Onofryton at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in the state of Washington. Dr. Hickey was selected for a VMLRP award first for the work she was doing as the program veterinarian for the NWIFC, an organization that supports management of natural resources for 20 tribes in western Washington state. When the commission hired Dr. Onofryton as the second program veterinarian in 2020, she applied for and received a VMLRP award.

The veterinarians’ work involves providing fish and wildlife health services for the 20 tribes, which are co-managers of Pacific salmon with the state of Washington and have more than 40 facilities rearing Pacific salmon for conservation and enhancement goals.

“Being a veterinarian in fisheries has a number of challenges, one of which is that resource agencies may not be able to provide salaries that are as competitive as those in private veterinary practice,” Dr. Hickey said. “The VMLRP award helps to compensate veterinarians providing important services for the educational debt they took on to get their professional training. Pacific salmon are an important public resource and an essential cultural and nutritional resource for the Indian tribes that the U.S. government has treaty obligations to maintain.”

The VMLRP awards for federal fiscal year 2021 are for service in veterinary shortage areas in a total of 36 states. These shortage areas include five each in Nebraska and South Dakota and four each in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Fifteen awards are for type 1 shortages, at least 80% food animal practice. Fifty-five awards are for type 2 shortages, at least 30% food animal practice in rural areas. Eight awards are for type 3 shortages, at least 49% public practice.

Get additional information about the VMLRP. April 15 is the next deadline for applications.

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.