Veterinarians need loan forgiveness program

When Dr. Kristen Obbink graduated veterinary school, student loans were at the top of her mind. She wanted to work in public health, but worried that her six-figure debt load would make that career path financially impossible – especially compared to the more lucrative option of private practice. The promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which forgives student debt for individuals who serve 10 years in the nonprofit or public sectors while making loan payments, changed her mind.

PSLF allowed Dr. Obbink to accept a position with a modest salary as a public health veterinarian with the state of Iowa. Five years later, she’s still working in the public sector at Iowa State University, where she’s on the front lines in the fight against dangerous zoonotic diseases like avian influenza. Her work is key to preventing disease outbreaks that could decimate the livestock industry, disrupt our food supply and even threaten national security – and she wouldn’t be able to do it without PSLF.

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The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform Act – unveiled this month by Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxHouse passes bill putting restrictions on unfunded mandates The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies for Putin summit: 'He’s not my enemy’ UMITA is the bipartisan regulatory relief Americans need MORE (R-N.C.) – would effectively eliminate PSLF. This could devastate our public service veterinary workforce. The simple truth is that veterinarians carry high student debt loads that necessitate the consideration of financial factors in career decisions, and any cuts to PSLF could render public service careers financially unfeasible for many. We can’t afford this disruption to our supply of public service veterinarians.

Many of the roles filled by public service veterinarians aren’t highly visible to the public – but they are crucial to our economy and public health. For instance, public health veterinarians oversee meat packing plants to ensure that all meat is safe for human consumption and that America maintains its reputation as having one of the safest food supplies in the world. Additionally, veterinarians in public laboratories across the country perform groundbreaking research to improve medical treatments for animals and humans alike.

Veterinarians also play a key role in protecting our national security. Veterinarians employed in homeland security work hard every day to defend the United States from the threat of a bioterrorism attack aimed at food animals. Similarly, veterinarians in the armed forces perform vital tasks like caring for companion animals of soldiers, treating K-9 working dogs and combatting animal diseases domestically and abroad. I personally served for more than two decades as a veterinarian in the military, so I know exactly how important this work is.

Because PSLF is new, we don’t yet have official statistics on how many veterinarians are utilizing the program. But we do have statistics on veterinary student debt. Today, the average veterinarian graduates with more than $140,000 in student debt – and that number can rapidly increase depending on interest rates. We also know that some beginning salaries for veterinary public service jobs clock in at under $50,000 a year. For many veterinarians – especially as they look to start families and settle down – these numbers are incompatible. For these individuals, PSLF is a lifesaver. 

Eliminating or reducing PSLF would be a mistake. Excessive student debt shouldn't prevent veterinarians – or any other professional – from committing themselves to public service. Our lawmakers should do everything they can to protect and preserve this important program.

Dr. Michael J. Topper is President of the American Veterinary Medical Association