Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program gets off ground

First USDA awards go to 62 recipients

November 9, 2010 (published)
By Edie Lau

The federal government will repay veterinary school loans for 62 practitioners who have pledged to work in under-served and chiefly rural regions for the next three years.

The veterinarians are the first to be granted debt relief under the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program authorized by Congress in 2003. The program had lain fallow for several years awaiting funding.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it will grant a total of $5,998,080 in loan and tax payments to the first recipients. (The loan reimbursements are taxable, and the tax payments are meant to cover that expense.)

According to the announcement, 260 veterinarians had applied to the program. For the 62 selected, the average award is $98,672.

Veterinary student debt has been rising relentlessly for years. The average debt load is $133,873 among those who graduated from veterinary school with debt in spring 2010, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“Veterinarians face insurmountable student-loan debt, and often struggle to repay the debt that they incur during their training,” Roger Beachy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), said in a prepared statement. “Too often this leads them to make the choice of working in locations that may offer higher pay than in rural America. This is creating a shortage of adequate veterinary services for producers of agriculture animals in rural America.”

The debt repayment program is meant to address the shortage, Beachy said: “These awards will bring trained veterinarians back to rural areas to serve producers, improve the health of the livestock industry and ensure a safe food supply,” Beachy said.

Dr. Gary Sherman, national program leader for veterinary science at USDA NIFA, said 181 veterinary shortage areas were identified based upon information provided by the states. Veterinarians selected for participation in the loan repayment program will fill shortage areas in 34 states, according to the USDA announcement.

Those shortage areas include: five in Iowa; four each in Idaho, Kansas and Texas; and three each in Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and South Dakota.

Finding employment or establishing practices in shortage areas is the responsibility of the participants. “We’re not offering positions,” Sherman said. “We’re offering an incentive to find a position. We’re not in a job-broker position. ... All we can do is bring down a barrier that is keeping some from going to those areas.”

Sherman added that although the states are under no obligation to assist the program participants, leaders in some shortage areas are offering support. “Some communities said, ‘We’d give them a building on our Main Street, which is dying.’ That’s not necessarily very common, but some communities are so in need of a veterinarian that they’re willing to help out,” he said.

The USDA has not released names of the 62 awardees because the program revolves around personal financial information, which is a private matter, Sherman said. However, he said he plans to contact the veterinarians to ask whether they would be willing to be identified and allow their experiences to be shared publicly. “There are some extraordinary individuals,” Sherman said.

The agency will make another round of awards next year. The program is accepting nominations from states to identify current shortage areas, which are scheduled to be posted on the agency's website by March 1. Applications for the program are due May 31; offers will go out by Sept. 1. Details are posted online.

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