Veterinarians press lawmakers on rural veterinary shortages, dog importation

Veterinary professionals met virtually with federal lawmakers this April to ask their support for legislation providing educational debt relief for practitioners in rural areas with designated shortages and ensuring the health of millions of dogs imported into the United States every year.

The AVMA virtual legislative fly-in, hosted annually by the Association to bring together congressional offices and their veterinary constituents to discuss legislation important to the veterinary profession, occurred on April 27. Over 200 veterinary practitioners, veterinary students, and veterinary college faculty members representing 49 states and 20 veterinary colleges participated in approximately 250 meetings with U.S. representatives, senators, and their staffs.

The meetings focused on securing congressional support for two bills supported by the AVMA: the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (HR 2447/S 2215) and the Healthy Dog Importation Act (HR 4239/S 2597).

Reps. Dusty Johnson  and Dr. Kurt Schrader
Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) (left) and Dr. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) (right), co-chairs of the Congressional Veterinary Medicine Caucus, were among the U.S. representatives, senators, and their staffs who met with the more than 200 participants in the AVMA virtual legislative fly-in.

The VMLRP Enhancement Act would end federal taxation on VMLRP awards. Because the program currently pays the tax on behalf of the recipient out of the program’s appropriated funding, ending the taxation would enable more veterinarians to participate in a program that offers up to $25,000 a year for educational loan repayment in exchange for service in U.S. Department of Agriculture–designated veterinarian shortage situations, particularly in rural areas. This would make the tax treatment of the awards the same as for the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program for physicians, dentists, and others.

Introduced in April 2021, the bill has 52 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Dr. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), co-chairs of the Congressional Veterinary Medicine Caucus, who were original co-sponsors. The Senate version of the VMLRP Enhancement Act currently has 15 co-sponsors.

Under the Healthy Dog Importation Act, no live dog can enter the United States unless the USDA has first determined the dog is in good health, has received all the necessary vaccinations, and is identified by a permanent method approved by the USDA.

Citing a sharp spike in the number of dogs sent to the U.S. from countries with a high risk of rabies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a yearlong ban on dog imports from 113 nations effective July 14, 2021.

The CDC estimates up to 1.2 million dogs are imported into the U.S. each year. For the estimated 113,000 imported from countries that are at a high risk for rabies transmission, the CDC requires a rabies vaccination certificate but no other health documentation or identification. For the 950,000 dogs imported from rabies-free, low-risk, or moderate-risk countries, the agency requires no documentation or vaccination.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who also participated in the virtual visits, introduced the Senate version of the Healthy Dog Importation Act this past August. The legislation currently has six co-sponsors in the Senate. Dr. Schrader sponsored the House version, which so far has so garnered 14 co-sponsors.

AVMA President José Arce said in a press release, “The veterinary community stands united in advocating for Congress to help alleviate veterinarian shortage situations in rural areas by assisting with the significant obstacle of student debt, and to ensure that dogs entering the country are healthy, thus reducing the potential for the spread of diseases that can endanger animal and public health.”

A version of this article appears in the June 2022 print issue of JAVMA.