Bid to bring veterinary education to Alaska stirs debate

Fears of oversaturation weigh on need for more veterinarians

November 9, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The proposed partnership between UAF and CSU is reciprocal, officials say. In exchange for access to its veterinary program, CSU students are invited to UAF to study Alaska's indigenous animals. Photo courtesy of UAF.
As many as 20 Alaska residents might soon have the option to attend two years of veterinary school in their home state before transferring to Colorado State University (CSU) to complete their DVM training.

Advocates of a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and CSU believe the plan will alleviate what some perceive to be a shortage of practitioners in Alaska, and ease the way for aspiring veterinarians in the state. Due to proximity and heavy competition for seats, Alaska residents have a slim chance of being accepted to one of the 28 veterinary medical programs accredited in the lower 48, UAF leaders say.

But before the UAF-CSU deal is cemented, Alaskan veterinarians are raising questions about whether the state’s somewhat transient population and fragile economy can support more veterinarians. Roughly 700,000 people — 259 of them licensed veterinarians — live in Alaska, making it the nation’s most sparsely populated state.

Rural outposts might be underserved in terms of veterinary care, but some practitioners in Alaska fear their businesses will not survive if faced with more competition — especially if 20 veterinarians graduate from UAF annually.

In assessing the need for the proposed UAF-CSU partnership, veterinarians like Dr. Nina Hansen are on the fence.

"I've voiced my support for this project," says Hansen, of Mount McKinley Animal Hospital in Fairbanks, one of nine practices in her immediate area. She describes the eight-doctor facility where she works as extremely busy and says that veterinarians in Alaska have virtually no option for referral; only a handful of boarded specialists practice in the state. 

"I think it's ridiculous that people say there's no need; people don't like 50 below and two hours of daylight and they leave,” she says. “That said, 20 students is a lot. I don’t know where they will all find work.”

Neither does Dr. Jim Delker, past president of the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association (AKVMA). He and others are perplexed that UAF officials did not consult the AKVMA, which counts 157 veterinarians as members, before drafting the proposal to partner with CSU.

"My personal thoughts are that it's odd that the university and the state didn't even approach veterinarians as a whole, especially our state association; we represent about 75 percent of the veterinarians here,” he says. “You’d think they’d want that support.”

AKVMA executives gathered Wednesday night to discuss the UAF-CSU proposed arrangement, among other things, and craft a response to it.

So-called 2+2 partnerships are not unique to Alaska. A joint program currently is under way between Utah State University and Washington State University’s (WSU) established veterinary medical program. Oregon State University once had a 2+2-type partnership with WSU as well, before creating its own four-year program in 2003. And the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Iowa State University’s (ISU) veterinary college have worked together since 2007. The ISU program admits 25 Nebraska students annually.

For institutions new to offering veterinary medical education, 2+2 arrangements make financial sense because they allow a fledgling program to forgo building a teaching hospital that can cost tens of millions of dollars.

It’s expected that during their time at CSU, UAF students will be classified as “sponsored,” meaning they will pay only in-state tuition costs and fees that total roughly $37,000 a year as opposed to $66,726 charged to unsponsored students. As with most 2+2 programs, the balance between in- and out-of-state tuition doesn't disappear but states commonly sponsor their seats and pay the difference. 

Some promoting the UAF-CSU partnership are hoping Alaska lawmakers will allocate funds to make up a difference of about $29,000 per student, but "if no mechanism can be found, at least a student in a 2+2 program only pays out-of-state costs for two years instead of four years," reasons Dr. John Blake, UAF associate vice chancellor for research.

Asked to elaborate on the deal from where CSU sits, spokeswoman Dell Rae Moellenberg stated that officials with CSU's veterinary medical program aren't ready. "(UAF) did approach CSU to see if the veterinary program would entertain a partnership; no commitments have been made," she explained by email. "CSU has agreed to enter a conversation to discuss the possibility, but that conversation is in the very, very early stages."

Meanwhile, the Alaska Board of Regents is forging ahead. On Nov. 2, the board’s 11 regents appropriated $400,000 of their 2013 fiscal-year budget to get the program off the ground. Further action is expected when the regents gather on Dec. 6 in Juneau. On the agenda: a plan to consider charging veterinary students more than $20,000 a year for their first and second years at UAF. That's more than the tuition and fees charged to UAF graduate students ($7,300 a semester) but on the low-end of tuition costs at established veterinary medical programs in the United States.

Delker, who describes his workdays as steady in his practice in Soldotna, south of Anchorage, doesn’t necessarily oppose the UAF-CSU plans. Rather, he’s curious about how its proponents are quantifying a “shortage” of practitioners in the state.

“The need for rural healthcare is different than the need for veterinarians,” he says. “We have identified that there is a definite need for improved veterinary care in rural areas. But I don’t think adding more veterinarians in the state will push people out into those communities. The perception that we’ll solve the rural shortage problems by adding more veterinarians is flawed.”

Anecdotal evidence supports that stance. A bevy of state programs and a federal initiative designed to repay veterinarians a portion of their tuition in exchange for practicing in underserved, mostly rural areas are having inadvertent outcomes. Some practitioners report having trouble finding work in sectors defined as underserved when it comes to veterinary care. Without a job to fulfill their commitments, veterinarians who’ve accepted loan reimbursements face having to repay the programs that sponsored them.

Another consequence is the stark realization that a lack of veterinary services in certain communities doesn’t always translate to decent jobs for DVMs.

In 2010, UAF leaders commissioned a survey of veterinarians in Alaska. Of the 89 veterinarians who responded, three-fourths supported the addition of veterinary medical education at UAF, a report on the study says.

Within the report's 98 pages, the authors lay out evidence that the veterinary profession is on an upward tick, touting the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ identification of veterinary medicine as the “18th fastest growing occupation” in the country.

“This raises the question as to whether existing veterinary schools can train enough professionals to fill the need,” the report says.

Dr. Todd O’Hara, an associate professor of wildlife toxicology at UAF, supports the report’s findings. He heads a steering committee to get the deal with CSU organized.

"UAF plans to pull six or so veterinarians among current faculty as well as two new hires to teach the program’s veterinary classes," he says, adding that veterinarians working in and around Fairbanks also will be called upon to help out with the program’s instruction.

O'Hara declined to weigh in as to whether more veterinarians truly are needed in Alaska.

Dr. Jon Basler, Alaska's delegate to the American Veterinary Medical Association, is more outspoken about the matter. "My long and short on it: If residents had access to a veterinary medical school, that would be good, but the state would be better off trying to get a program in place for technicians," he says. "It’s a real issue trying to get licensed technicians here.

"Here in Anchorage, we just had a practice go out of business," he adds.

The owner of that practice is Dr. Paula Schmidt, who recently shut her doors when the economic downturn, employee problems and ballooning loan payments forced her out of business.

Detailing her plight, she says: "It was a number of bad factors that have happened at the same time. Economically we'd really been struggling. In 2009, we were making $65,000 to $70,000 a month. This summer, it was $42,000 a month. We needed $60,000 a month to break even."

Schmidt has since taken a job with a local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Asked whether Anchorage has room for more veterinarians, Schmidt says: "I don't think this area could sustain more veterinarians. But it all depends on the attrition rate. Here in Anchorage, it gets 30 below with only five hours of daylight. You really have to be a special kind of person to be able to deal with that for years at a time."

Some of Schmidt's colleagues would welcome more veterinarians in the state, a UAF-commissioned survey reveals.

In 2010, an Anchorage-based consulting firm polled veterinarians and allied professionals in an attempt to assess the need for veterinary education in Alaska. Of the survey's 89 respondents, 75 percent reported having difficulties recruiting veterinarians to work in their practices. Forty-four percent reported troubles with retention.

"Almost all veterinary employers who reported difficulties in hiring new associates felt that the UAF program would provide qualified professionals for their organization, and touted the job prospects for newly graduated veterinarians in the state,” the survey’s executive summary states.

Blake, the UAF vice chancellor, notes that even small animal practitioners in urban areas have raised concerns about recruitment and retention. As far as attracting already practicing veterinarians to Alaska, Blake "doubts that Alaska is on the minds of new vet students entering their first year in colleges in the lower 48."

What's more, the survey results show that most clinicians interviewed believe that market saturation isn't something to worry about. Even among natives of the state, few "consider Alaska as a career destination."

However, statements made by one unnamed veterinarian queried for the survey are a striking departure from that.

"If UAF had a program I will oppose any competition with the private sector in seeking veterinary caseload from our area, especially if it is done at a reduced cost," the veterinarian writes. "UAF will put some veterinarians out of business ... We already have more veterinarians per capita in our area than almost any other state in the union."

Editor's Note: This article was edited post publication to remove a reference that inaccurately characterized Kodiak Island as devoid of veterinarians. The island is home to at least one veterinary practice.


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