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11-02-2008 - Shortage of veterinarians has "makings of a crisis"

Shortage of veterinarians has "makings of a crisis"

Dr. Gregory Hammer testifies before a Congressional subcommittee on the National Veterinary Medical Service Act.
Dr. Gregory Hammer testifies before a Congressional subcommittee on the National Veterinary Medical Service Act.

— The president of the nation's largest veterinary association appeared before a Congressional subcommittee Feb. 7 and urged the United States Department of Agriculture to implement a long-standing, but dormant, program that would help address a critical shortage in the number of veterinarians who protect the country's food supply.

Dr. Gregory S. Hammer, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, testified before the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry that the delay in implementing the National Veterinary Medical Service Act (NVMSA) puts U.S. economic and food safety at risk.

"The problems that NVMSA will address worsen each and every day the program remains nonfunctional," Hammer said. "This has all the makings of a crisis if we don't act now."

The Act, which was signed into law by President George Bush in 2003 and which received funding in Fiscal Years 2006-2008, is a loan repayment program for veterinarians who pledge to practice in a variety of underserved areas of veterinary medicine, including food supply veterinary medicine.

With the average veterinary school graduate's debt climbing to $106,000, the program is essential if more food supply veterinarians are going to be added to the workforce, Hammer said.

Recent studies indicate that the supply of veterinarians working in food safety will fall short by 4 to 5 percent annually through 2016.

"These food supply veterinarians are the guardians of our nation's food supply, and they will be the first medical professionals to diagnose and contain diseases in animals that may spread to humans," Hammer said.

Officials with the USDA testified during the hearing that they lack the capability to administer the loan repayment program, saying that "such programs have never been the function" of the agency. They also indicated that the Act's language complicates the process by not allowing them to work with the nation's 28 colleges of veterinary medicine to coordinate the program.

Members of the subcommittee, however, questioned why USDA considers the act hard to implement.

"In crafting this Act in 2003, the Committee worked closely with USDA to ensure proper implementation of a simple and straightforward program that would allow USDA to offer incentives to large animal veterinarians to practice in underserved rural communities," said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa). It is frustrating that four years later, USDA is now bringing concerns to our attention."

Rep. Robin Hayes, a North Carolina Republican, said the law's current language is not a serious deterrent to its implementation.

"If the problem is how the law is written, we can change that real quick," Hayes said.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), and ranking member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, testified that Congress has appropriated about $1.9 million for NVMSA. He warned, however, that future funding may be at risk if the USDA doesn't implement the program.

"We will think long and hard before we put any more money into it without seeing any movement by USDA," he said.

Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who represents an area where the 500,000 farm animals are only slightly less than the 700,000 human residents, encouraged the USDA to act quickly in implementing the Act.

"This Act is necessary," Kagen said, "because the animals can't fix themselves."

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The AVMA and its more than 76,000 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health. Visit the AVMA Web site at www.avma.org for more information.


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