Federal lawmakers join fight to end rural veterinary shortage


New Senate bill would make USDA loan repayment program tax-exempt.


-- A federal, bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate yesterday that would make the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) tax-exempt for veterinarians.

The veterinary loan repayment program was established by the National Veterinary Medical Services Act of 2003 and is administered by U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It is designed to help address the shortage of veterinarians in certain critical areas with a strong emphasis on food-supply medicine. After seven years in the making, USDA finally began accepting applications for the program in April.

The federal bill, SB 3621, is being called the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act and was introduced July 21 by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), with Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) as an original co-sponsor. The tax-exemption promoted in the bill would increase the number of veterinarians who will be able to participate in the USDA program. If passed, the bill would provide a federal income tax exemption for payments received under VMLRP and similar state programs that encourage veterinarians to enter under-served practice areas through student loan repayment.

"Rather than awarding full funding for this program each year, the VMLRP must immediately give back 39 percent of the money it receives to the U.S. Treasury as a federal tax," explains Crapo in a statement about the bill. "The bill simply removes this tax burden so that more veterinarians can be selected and help rural America. It would allow the VMLPR to increase the number of veterinarians selected by a third."

"Adequate access to veterinary care in rural areas is critical for both human and animal health, as well as animal welfare, disease surveillance, public safety and economic development across America," Johnson told his Senate colleagues when introducing the bill yesterday. "Everyone in America benefits from the veterinary services provided in even the most remote areas of our nation. As such, I am committed to doing all I can to help bring veterinarians to under-served parts of our state."

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is one of 122 organizations across the United States that already announced support of the bill."By making the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program tax-exempt, we will be sending more veterinarians into areas around the country that lack professionals possessing critical expertise in animal care, food safety and public health," says Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA's chief executive officer. "If the Johnson-Crapo bill passes, it will remove the program's tax burden, allowing enough additional funds to provide one additional veterinarian for every three veterinarians currently scheduled to receive awards. These additional veterinarians in under-served areas would go a long way to further protect our nation's food supply and public health."

Other supporters include the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmer's Union. Additional bill co-sponsors include Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Mike Johanns (R-Nebraska), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a veterinarian, was not available for comment on the bill by press time and had not issued statements about its introduction.

According to an interim final rule published in July 2009 about the VMLRP, award recipients can expect to receive as much as $25,000 per year in loan reimbursements for three or four years. Based on funds appropriated through fiscal-year 2009, that totals roughly $4.5 million -- enough to select about 40 practicing veterinarians for participation in the program’s first year. Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA's Governmental Relations Division, adds that Congress appropriated an additional $4.8 million for the program in fiscal 2010.

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