Federal bill tackles rural veterinary shortages

Veterinary Services Investment Act to be introduced

May 13, 2011 (published)
By David DeKok

To ease the shortage of practitioners serving rural America, two U.S. senators plan to reintroduce a bill next week that will create a matching grant program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to attract practitioners to areas in need of veterinarians.

The Veterinary Services Investment Act has been kicking around since 2009. A version of it passed the U.S. House of Representatives last fall, but its momentum stalled with the start of a new session of Congress in January. Now it's being unveiled on the Senate side, with prime sponsors Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb, sponsored the version that passed the House last fall. An aide to Cochran said the bill is essentially the same as before but with tweaks to make it less costly, though he did not specify how. The Veterinary Services Investment Act, as written in 2009, specified grants for a variety of programs intended to relocate or recruit veterinarians and veterinary technicians into underserved rural areas and to support veterinary students seeking training in food safety or food-supply veterinary medicine.

In a 'Dear Colleague' letter to fellow senators dated May 4, Chochran and Stabenow appealed to lawmakers' desire to maintain national security: 

“Help turn around the nation’s veterinarian shortage by joining us in co-sponsoring the Veterinary Services Investment Act. Our nation’s veterinary workforce is on the front lines of upholding food safety, public health, animal health and homeland security. This vital profession continues to face a critical shortage in the public, private, industrial and academic sectors, and the problem is on the rise.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) followed on May 9 with an action alert, urging the group's 81,500 members to contact lawmakers and lobby in favor of The Veterinary Services Investment Act.

The bill aims to provide matching grants for establishing or expanding veterinary practices or mobile veterinary facilities, recruiting veterinarians, technicians and students, sponsoring training programs in food safety or food animal medicine, and other purposes. The grants could not be used for construction of facilities or repayment of loans. The USDA has another program, which began last year, to help veterinarians repay their student loans by agreeing to work for a period of time in underserved areas.

As outlined in the 2009 Veterinary Services Investment Act, prospective grant recipients can be national, state or regional veterinary medical associations, non-profits that work to provide veterinary services in underserved areas, AVMA-accredited veterinary colleges, university research or veterinary medical foundations, state agriculture experiment stations or other state, local or tribal government agencies.

So far, chances that the Veterinary Services Investment Act will pass Congress appear promising. Thirty-four senators co-sponsored the bill when it was introduced last session. Dr. Michael Gilsdorf, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, said nearly 100 organizations, including his own, are backing the legislation. When the bill was introduced in 2009, the Congressional Budget Office pegged its five-year cost at $38 million. While this year's version is expected to cost less, its projected total has yet to be publicized. One hurdle for the bill's passage, as Gilsdorf sees it, is that it could get caught up in partisan budget battles expected for this year and fail to receive much attention.

Few in organized veterinary medicine disagree that there's a need for more veterinary care in some rural areas, especially large animal practitioners who can birth a calf or foal and handle the myriad of other matters involving livestock health care. The AVMA maintains an online map showing the percentage of food animal veterinarians to the number of food animals in a state’s counties. Viewing maps of Mississippi and Michigan, it is easy to understand why Cochran and Stabenow are pushing the Senate bill. Significant areas of Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula, have no food animal veterinarians. The same is true for large areas of Mississippi.

Dr. Michael Chaddock, deputy director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said a core problem is that the United States and its citizens are increasingly less rural than in the past. Less than 2 percent of the American population works in production agriculture, meaning that people going into veterinary medicine are less likely to have been exposed to agricultural life than they once were. Even if they agree to serve in rural areas to gain repayment of their student loans, he said, its unclear that they might remain in that area indefinitely.

Some observers maintain that income generated from rural practice often can't pay a veterinarian's bills, which can be steep considering that the average new graduate leaves school with more than $130,000 in student loan debt.

The other issue, Chaddock acknowledges, is the increasing feminization of the veterinary profession. About 55 percent of all U.S. veterinarians are now women, he said, and female students comprise 80 percent of today's veterinary classes. For a variety of reasons, female veterinarians tend to gravitate toward companion animal practices in urban areas.

Dr. David Wolfgang, a large-animal veterinarian who does outreach work for Penn State's Department of Veterinary and Biologic Medicine, said female veterinary students tend to be attracted to food animal work if it is presented as an opportunity to do preventive medicine rather than “cow wrestling, which is not as important anymore.” Veterinary students who grow up in the suburbs, he said, are attracted to the concept of holistic farming.

But Wolfgang acknowledged that once a student’s career path is set, it can be difficult to change it.

Farmers and even pet owners with no veterinary services in their area can reach out to more distant veterinarians, Gilsdorf says. But that adds time and expense and uncertainty, and the veterinarian might not get there in time. He maintains that underserved areas are not limited to farms; a need for practitioners also has cropped up in the federal and state governments and in academia.

The veterinary profession is small and likely to remain so, predicts Chaddock. “You could take all the veterinarians in the U.S., the ones for companion animals, for large animals and the military, and they would not fill a large football stadium."

David DeKok is a freelance journalist writing for the VIN News Service. He is based in Harrisburg, Pa.

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