June 30, 2009
Legislation confronts shortage of public-health veterinarians
Bill calls for large federal investment into new programs
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service
A renewed effort to get more veterinarians working in public health made its way into the House last week, and supporters of HR 2999 say the bill carries more potential traction than any of its predecessors.
For starters, the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act goes beyond brick-and-mortar facilities to provide scholarship funds, faculty loan repayments and creates a fellowship program for would-be federal veterinarians, to be administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The goal is to address the “severe lack” of veterinarians trained in food safety, food systems, biomedical research and other public health-related areas of practice. And like failed legislation before it, HR 2999 authorizes a competitive grants program where the nation’s 28 veterinary medical schools can apply for funds to build facilities and buy equipment to increase enrollment and educate more veterinarians in those sectors.
If passed, a newly established Division of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health, a branch of HHS, would administer the program.
While some fear that allowing competitive grants could result in a money grab among colleges fighting for financial assistance, Brian Smith, director of Governmental Affairs with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, insists that there’s plenty of room for growth in the profession.
“We’ve always said that we need about nine new classes,” he says. “That’s about a 25 percent increase to meet demand.”
If that estimate seems high, it’s because federal officials haven’t championed the deficiency’s depth considering the U.S. government lacks a “comprehensive understanding” concerning the shortage’s breadth.
That statement comes from a Governmental Accounting Office (GAO) report released in February. In it, GAO lays out nine recommendations designed to bolster the veterinarian workforce to maintain routine public-health activities as well as respond to catastrophic events and zoonotic disease outbreaks. According to the study, 16 of the 24 federal entities that employ veterinarians have looming manpower concerns, especially the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Agriculture Research Service, Food and Drug Administration, Army, and Food Safety and Inspection Service, where 27 percent of the DVMs working could retire by 2012.
Add to that turnover, growth and net replacements, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 28,000 job openings in veterinary medicine by then.
“Veterinarians are our frontline of defense against potentially deadly disease outbreaks,” says Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the bill’s co-sponsor, in a prepared statement. “... We need enough public health veterinarians to help keep our food supply and our families safe."
Still, like those before it, HR 2999 promises to cost a bundle, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand the size of veterinary medical schools to train more DVMs in food safety, food systems, biomedical research and other public health-related areas of practice. The Congressional Budget Office had not yet aggregated the initiative’s total cost at press time, which might be in the measure’s favor.
After all, insiders say the $1.5-billion price tag attached to the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act of 2005 helped sink the profession’s original attempt to gain funding to attract more public-health veterinarians.
Three congressional sessions later, the bill has been tweaked several times to make it more palatable to lawmakers. In 2007, part of one version passed as an amendment to the Higher Education Authorization Bill. Once part of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, the amendment called for “minor renovations and improvements” — a far cry from what originally was requested.
Veterinarian and former two-term Sen. Wayne Allard now works as a consultant for AAVMC and is pushing for HR 2999’s passage. As a sponsor of the bill’s previous versions, he considers this latest rewrite to be “better than what I introduced.”
“There are incentives for students and people to come out of practice, get some training and work in the agencies,” he says. “It’s a good, well-rounded bill. We’ve got good sponsors. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to pass.”
As always, money is a major hurdle.
“How are we going to pay for it? That’s the concern for every bill,” Allard says. “But now is the time. There are a lot of public-health functions that we need to support. There’s a lot of concern about public health and food safety.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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