States aim to alleviate veterinarian shortage
CONNELL, Wash. (AP) ” Bill Bennett has spent 45 years feeding and herding the 2,500 cattle that roam his rolling eastern Washington ranch. Unable to find a veterinarian to come to his rural place, Bennett’s job has come to include doctor as well.
Farmers and ranchers across the country complain of a shortage of large animal veterinarians. A federal program created in 2003 to try to help the situation sits dormant while the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes rules, and food safety experts cry out that public health is being endangered.
Veterinarians not only care for cattle, pigs, horses and chickens on the farm, they also monitor and inspect a large portion of the food supply and work as disease researchers. And a shortage has many experts calling the situation a crisis in animal care.
More and more states are recognizing the critical need, approving or considering bills that provide tuition reimbursement or scholarships to veterinarians who agree to work in underserved areas. Those states include Washington, where Bennett has been championing rural veterinary care for years.
“I can’t get a vet to save my life. I’ve tried for years to get one to move in here and start a practice and they don’t want to do it. They want to do bigger cities and small animals,” Bennett said. “I complain about them spending all our money educating dog and cat doctors.”
Recent studies for the American Veterinary Medical Association indicate that the demand for veterinarians nationally will increase by as much as 14 percent by 2016. Those same studies project a shortfall of vets of between 4 to 5 percent annually.
The seriousness of the shortage was highlighted with the recent massive beef recall from a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse. The recall launched a series of congressional hearings and close scrutiny of the USDA’s meat and poultry inspection system.
The agency has said it is short about 500 inspectors.
“When you take into account a huge area food supply veterinarians have to cover, it’s not like the remaining veterinarians can pick up the slack,” said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the Schaumburg, Ill.-based American Veterinary Medical Association. “We’re seeing more and more states taking steps to address the situation.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight states already have implemented loan forgiveness programs for veterinarians who agree to work in underserved, often rural, areas. Eight more states are considering similar programs.
A bill in the Washington Legislature would allow Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to award two scholarships each year to students who agree to work for a period of time in a rural area. The bill has the support of the university, which sees fewer than 10 percent of its students choose to work as large-animal vets.
The school graduates about 90 students each year, with an average debt of $80,000 each.
Vets tend to gravitate toward small-animal care because ranchers will often choose to slaughter a sick or injured animal rather than pay for expensive treatment, while a pet owner will spend heavily to save a treasured friend, said Warwick Bayly, dean of the veterinary school.
“When you balance the needs for simple, day-to-day living plus repayment of sizable student loans, the debt often exceeds what you can expect to make in an agricultural area. It’s just simple math,” he said. “But that shouldn’t be interpreted that people aren’t interested.”
Federal support has been slow to come. Veterinary groups have been pushing federal legislation that would award $1.5 billion in competitive grants so the nation’s 28 veterinary schools could expand. The schools currently graduate about 2,500 veterinarians annually, though that number hasn’t grown for at least a couple of decades.
The Veterinary Medical Service Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2003, also is pending, delayed by the rulemaking process. The act would provide tuition reimbursement to veterinarians who agree to work in underserved areas, whether the shortage is a rural area, discipline or government agency. So far, $1.875 million has been appropriated for it.
However, the agency entered into an agreement with the Food Safety Inspection Service to implement the program and hire more inspectors in February 2007, said Robert Hedberg, acting director of governmental and legislative affairs for USDA’s research mission area.
Five new veterinarians have since been hired by the service with tuition reimbursement included as a hiring incentive. The cost: $150,000.
In the meantime, USDA officials have committed to working with Congress to find ways to speed and streamline the rulemaking process to aid the private veterinary sector.
“The interest is high, and everyone is working hard to find a solution,” Hedberg said.
A solution can’t come fast enough for Bennett and his son and three grandchildren who work with him on the farm. Granddaughters Leslie, 28, and Jolene, 25, spent a recent morning giving heifer calves their first shots and checking on a pair of just-born twins.
Jolene thought about being a vet, but she didn’t want to take on any more school. Her older sister, meanwhile, could see the advantage of having a local veterinarian.
“We have to haul or go a long ways to get things done,” she said. “In a full day, it can mean a lot.”