Alarm Over Rural Veterinarian Shortage

Assistance from the Government

The federal government has stepped in, making available millions of dollars in incentives to encourage new veterinarians to work in rural practices. One solution has been the introduction of a variety of loan-repayment programs. The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), sponsored by the USDA, offers graduates who have pledged to work in designated shortage areas for three years $25,000 a year in veterinary school loan repayment.

In 2010, the USDA awarded 63 of these grants, totaling about $6 million. Because of these awards, 34 states will fill at least one shortage area in their state.

"These are trained applicants who have always imagined going into large-animal medicine but could not do so financially," Sherman said.

In October 2010 the AVMA's Food Animal Veterinary Recruitment and Retention Program awarded $100,000 to each of its first five recipients who pledged to practice in underserved areas for four years.

In March 2011, U.S. Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act of 2011, which provides a federal income tax exemption for payments received under the VMLRP, allowing award recipients to collect more money. The bill has 14 cosponsors and is currently in committee hearings.

Many states -- Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri -- have implemented similar programs to make it economically viable for veterinarians to practice in rural areas.

DeHaven said that while these programs are not a silver bullet in eradicating the shortage, they are a step in the right direction in support of emerging food animal veterinarians, and consequently food safety.

"We need to get the public to understand that food safety encompasses everything from the food they eat, to the animals that produce that food, to the practitioners that take care of those food-producing animals."

Likewise, Sherman said the programs are critical to the needs of people not only in rural areas, but people everywhere.

"Our national herds are our treasures," Sherman said, "and they need to be protected because they make up an agriculture that America is dependent upon."

ABCNews.com contributor Andrew Mach is a member of the University of Nebraska ABC News on Campus bureau.

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