Washington — Funding student loan-repayment programs and increasing salaries of working veterinarians are the only ways to prevent a dramatic shortage of public-health veterinarians that could put the nation at risk.
That's what eight expert witnesses told the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs at a late-February hearing called in response to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report saying the federal government is unaware of an imminent shortage of federal and public-health veterinarians.
"We can pay now, or we can pay later," testified Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "If we choose later, that payment will be exponentially high."
The current level of pay for public-health veterinarians is not high enough to recruit or retain them, despite an interest in the field, DeHaven said, adding that heavy student debt only exacerbates the problem.
Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, says the GAO report will be helpful in the AVMA's effort to address veterinary work-force issues in the federal government, as well as public and private practice.
"The report supports the critical need for infrastructure funding for our veterinary schools so that they can increase enrollment, as well as the need to address the inequities in federal veterinary salaries that impacts recruiting and retaining federal veterinarians," he says.
The GAO report also highlights the need for Congress to adequately fund the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, which provides loan repayment to veterinarians who work in underserved geographic and professional areas of veterinary medicine, Lutschaunig says.
No one has more firsthand knowledge of the funding issue than Dr. Michael Gilsdorf, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV).
"There are more jobs in all of veterinary medicine than there are veterinarians," he says, adding that the shortage is felt most keenly in public health.
He suggests improving the total compensation package for federal veterinarians.
What's disappointing is that the lack of veterinarians in public health isn't due to a lack of interest, according to Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).
Twenty-two of the 28 veterinary colleges offer joint degrees in public health, she reports. Hundreds of students participate in trips to biomedical research facilities, Plum Island and the National Institutes of Health. They are excited about what they learn, but "despite that great interest, the federal government loses them," she says.
"The findings of the GAO report show significant challenges," DeHaven warns, "and significant opportunities."
What GAO found
»The federal government lacks a comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of its veterinarian work force.
» Efforts to identify the veterinarian work force needed for a catastrophic event are insufficient.
»Officials from federal and state agencies involved in four recent zoonotic-disease outbreaks commonly cited insufficient veterinarian capacity as a work-force challenge.