President Bush has signed the National Veterinary Medical Service Act (H.R. 1367), which will provide loan forgiveness for veterinary students and new graduates who agree to work in underserved areas, in underserved population groups, and in underserved disciplines of veterinary practice.
Eligible students will enter into agreements with the Secretary of Agriculture for a period of time and amount of repayment of educational loans determined by the Secretary in exchange for the veterinarian's service in a shortage area including rural regions and inner-city areas. Rural veterinarians are the nation's front line of defense against disease outbreaks such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, mad cow disease), preserving food safety. Inner-city veterinarians are in demand to address public health problems associated with pet overpopulation, parasites, rabies, and other zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted between people and animals).
High educational debt is a determining factor in where many recent veterinary graduates choose to practice. The relatively low salaries that veterinarians can expect in some agricultural regions, as well as in some inner cities, often preclude them from accepting positions in those areas. In 2001, the mean starting salary for veterinary graduates was $44,500, with the mean loan debt of $67,800. Loan payments on that amount of debt range from $800-$900 a month, requiring average veterinary graduates to spend nearly one-third of their monthly salaries on educational debt.
In addition, agencies such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have had difficulty recruiting veterinarians to satisfy staffing needs. It is anticipated that the shortfall of trained veterinarians in those agencies will continue to worsen. The National Veterinary Medical Service Act will grant the Secretary of Agriculture the discretion to place veterinarians in areas of need, including government service.
The legislation will also create a "National Guard" of veterinarians. In exchange for additional debt repayment, eligible students can enter into additional agreements with the Secretary to assist the USDA in addressing disease outbreaks, bioterrorist threats, or similar emergency situations.
"With the growing threat of bioterrorism and fears of foreign disease like 'mad cow,' this bill would create the manpower for a veterinarian 'National Guard' that would serve as our front-line defense and intelligence service for animal health concerns," said Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering, who sponsored the bill.