It’s time for Congress to tackle veterinary shortages

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is home to the largest concentration of food animal producers in Alaska, and that number is only growing. For instance, two large feedlot operations are being developed with the goal of housing up to 10,000 cattle.

The area’s supply of veterinarians, however, has not kept pace. In fact, the number of veterinarians in the region has been reduced due to retirements over recent years, creating a veterinary shortage. If this shortage is not addressed, inadequate access to veterinary care will place the area’s livestock at an increased risk for disease and endanger the ability of local livestock producers to grow their businesses and create jobs.

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The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s veterinary shortage isn’t an isolated problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified hundreds of similar veterinary shortage areas all across the country – and these shortages are placing our food supply and rural communities at risk.

Congress can help address this problem by passing the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (S. 487/H.R. 1268), which would place more veterinarians in underserved areas. This legislation is vital to protecting our nation’s animal health, public health and agricultural communities.

Currently, the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) provides loan repayment awards of up to $75,000 to veterinarians who commit to serving at least three years in a federally-designated shortage area. These funds play a critical role in incentivizing veterinarians to serve in shortage areas, as student loans – which ballooned to an average of $143,758 for 2016 graduates of veterinary colleges – can otherwise make practice in rural areas cost-prohibitive for veterinarians.

The VMLRP’s successful formula has kept the program in high demand. To date, the VMLRP has filled 388 shortages area across 45 states, Puerto Rico and U.S. federal lands since its inception in 2010. In total, nearly 1,200 veterinarians have applied for the program.

Unfortunately, about 75 percent of shortage areas remain unfilled because program funding is limited. That’s in part because each VMLRP award is subject to a 39 percent federal tax, meaning that the USDA has to pay $29,250 in taxes for each program participant. This extra tax burden quickly eats up program funding and reduces the number of veterinarians who can serve in shortage areas. 

The VMLRP Enhancement Act would eliminate this tax to free up funds for additional awards. If this tax policy had been in place since the program’s implementation in 2010, approximately 130 additional shortage areas could have been filled – a nearly 33 percent increase in program capacity.

Eliminating this tax is a simple and common-sense move to help our agricultural communities by reducing veterinary shortages. There’s also precedent for this tax code change, as this same tax break is already provided for the human medicine counterpart to the VMLRP, the National Health Service Corps.

As a mixed-animal practitioner, I know firsthand how vital it is for livestock to receive timely veterinary care – and the risks we face if we fail to address veterinary shortages. Helping our nation’s ranchers and farmers should be an easy decision. But while nearly every state is home to shortage areas, only 53 members of Congress have signed on to cosponsor the VMLRP Enhancement Act so far. Our agricultural communities are counting on Congress pass this bill – it’s time for them to deliver.

Dr. Thomas F. Meyer is the President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which was founded in 1863 and represents more than 89,000 member veterinarians worldwide engaged in a wide variety of professional activities and dedicated to the art and science of veterinary medicine.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.