AVMA still focused on passing veterinary student debt legislation in 113th Congress
If you're itching to see some student debt relief from Congress this session, it may depend on whether the upcoming "lame duck" Congress will indeed be lame, or surprisingly robust. Gina Luke, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Governmental Relations Division, says it could go either way.
There's little time left for the 113th Congress—especially with elections in November—but the AVMA hasn't given up on getting at least one piece of debt-relief passed, namely the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (VMLRP). Ron DeHaven, executive vice president and chief executive officer for the AVMA, published a blog last week urging Congress to support the bill, which would eliminate the 39 percent federal withholding tax from the $4.8 million appropriated annually for VMLRP awards.
DeHaven contends that more money retained for the program allows for the VMLRP to send more veterinarians into underserved rural areas while helping more willing veterinarians pay down ever-increasing student debt. "Since Congress first authorized the VMLRP 11 years ago, the average graduating debt for veterinarians has more than doubled from $76,558 in 2003 to $162,113 in 2013," DeHaven writes. He also cites that there are roughly 180 areas in the United States experiencing a severe shortage of essential veterinary services.
AVMA Governmental Relations Division Assistant Director Gina Luke says there's still real hope that the legislation can be passed before the session's end. "It has been one of our very top priorities," she says. "We've worked it hard and very aggressively."
However, Luke believes sometimes the message means more coming from the mouths of the ranchers and veterinarians politicians meet; not just from people in Washington. To that end, the AVMA has launched an advertising campaign focused on the VMLRP. Playing off of the children's song, "Old MacDonald had a Farm," it encourages people to "Tell Congress to Cock-a-Doodle-Do-Something." Luke says that's the best thing veterinarians can do right now—talk to their elected officials.
"There's increased opportunity to meet face to face with politicians during elections," she says. "They will be out glad-handing—that's an opportunity for our members to get face time. We do hope our members are convincing in the two or three minutes they might have with someone that the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act should be passed."
For more information about veterinary shortage areas, the VMLRP and how to reach out to members of Congress, go to avma.org.
Other bills on the AVMA's agenda such as the Earnings-Contingent Education Loans Act and the Know Before You Owe Private Student Loan Act will likely be reintroduced to the next Congress. And the Higher Education Act, which would be a likely candidate to shepherd some of these veterinary debt relief bills through, looks to meet the same fate.
In July, the AVMA House of Delegates also approved a resolution submitted by the California Veterinary Medical Association to actively pursue passage of legislation to reduce the interest rate of veterinary students' federal loans. Luke says the resolution doesn't change the course of the Governmental Relations Division, because its staff is already resolved to focus on legislation that benefits veterinary students. But, she says, it's clear the effort requires a stick-with-it attitude. "It feels a lot like Groundhog Day. Bills on student loan interest rates get introduced every Congress. You certainly have seen these bills before and you'll see them again next year."