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Letter to dvm360: Shroud of secrecy cloaks veterinary loan repayment program
The VMLRP's misplaced priorities don't address glaring shortages.
I'm writing in response to the December 2015 dvm360 cover article “Report pinpoints heavy veterinary shortage in Appalachia" and the News/Politics article “USDA awards $4.5 million in veterinary loan repayments" that ran inside the same issue.
I had always assumed that once an area of shortage was identified, veterinary practitioners like myself in underserved areas could apply for loan forgiveness. I was wrong.
Photo credit: Getty ImagesAs a large animal practice owner in Georgia, my office receives calls to treat horses, cattle and small ruminants from counties up to 100 miles away throughout the entire northern portion of our state. This is because there is a paucity of mobile practitioners in the surrounding counties willing to work on food animals. We didn't need a large-scale study like the 2015 State of Animal Health in Appalachia report to bring this to our attention.
Consequently, I was incredulous when I reviewed the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) website and found that in 2014-2015 the only shortfall in my 28-county area as identified by my state veterinarian was a “critical” shortage of “food safety” and “public health” veterinarians-otherwise known as meat inspectors! In 2015, two smaller areas in the southern portion of Georgia had critical shortages of veterinarians treating food animals. Remarkably, there was a “high” degree of shortage identified in the cities of Athens and Tifton, Georgia-the location of the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Laboratories. In these locations, loan forgiveness could be awarded to applicants serving in food safety, public health, epidemiology and laboratory diagnostic capacities.
Being curious, I spoke to someone from the VMLRP who said it wasn't possible to identify recipients of the $4.5 million in taxpayer-funded veterinary school loan repayment awards (except perhaps through the Freedom of Information Act). Don't get me wrong, I'm confident that every award recipient is improving services, and I'm heartened to know that someone from my home state of Georgia actually received a repayment award in 2014. This award recipient lives in one of 74 counties identified by multiple studies as lacking food animal services, according to the individual's nomination information.
Fortunately for that recipient, he or she had the option of applying for loan repayment as a practitioner and not just as a government employee. The state veterinarian signing off on county nominations had tagged the recipient's six-county area in eastern Georgia as needing a food animal practice. Meanwhile, veterinarians in my specific 28-county area in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains could only apply for an award in 2014-2015 if they were employed in the food safety or public health arena (aka meat inspectors).
I'll be writing the office of my state veterinarian to remind it that critical shortages in 2016 will go beyond filling positions at my alma mater (UGA) and well beyond filling government regulatory positions. If we're serious about encouraging veterinarians to keep doing the dirty (and sometimes dangerous) work associated with cattle production or the financially unrewarding work of helping small ruminant owners maintain their herds, the rest of us need some help too. I hope the next article I read about the VMLRP doesn't fit so neatly into the News/Politics page and that increased transparency dispels any hint of gerrymandering.
Pam Milligan, DVM