In public trust
WASHINGTON - Public health needs more veterinarians. Standing as bulwark to the threat of infectious diseases and bioterrorism, the shortage of veterinarians in this role has become “critical”, adds Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.
In an exclusive interview with DVM Newsmagazine, the veterinarian turned high-ranking U.S. Senator talks about key legislation to stymie a public health shortage of veterinarians, his veterinary career and his 15-year run in the fast pace of Washington politics.
Serving on two of the most powerful committees in the Senate, Appropriations and Budget, Allard remains a believer in expanding the veterinary workforce to protect this country from zoonotic disease threats.
So much so, he says, “Our public health and national security could depend on it.”
Tough rhetoric from the 62-year-old fiscal conservative, who clearly believes the federal government needs to practice financial discipline. “We just simply can’t afford to do everything,” he says of governing. In the case of public health, talk isn’t cheap.
Appropriations to carry out the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act are estimated at $300 million for fiscal year 2006, and $1.264 billion for nine fiscal years beginning in 2007.
The initiative was created to establish a competitive grant program to build capacity in veterinary medical education,expand the workforce of veterinarians engaged in public health practice and pay for infrastructure to do it.
While the legislation was read twice since its initial introduction last April, it subsequently was referred to the Committee on Health,Education, Labor, and Pensions.With 12 co-sponsors, the Senator remains hopeful.
The legislation gained strong backing from the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association ofAmerican Veterinary Medical Colleges. After all, it has been 30 years since the feds have written a general funding prescription to the colleges of veterinary medicine, the groups contend.
Consider world disease trends, Allard adds.
West Nile virus, avian influenza, monkey pox, bovine spongiform encephalopathy - the standing mantra from epidemiologists is that every infectious disease is only a plane or boat ride away.
Sixty percent of infectious organisms are considered transmissible between humans and animals.More than 75 percent of newly emerging infectious diseases fit into this category. And a staggering “80 percent of bio-threat agents of concern are shared between animals and man,” he says.
“Veterinarians are essential for early detection and response to unusual disease events that could be linked to emerging infectious diseases,”Allard writes.“It was a veterinarian who first diagnosed West Nile virus in the United States and a veterinarian who first notified health authorities of the introduction of monkey pox to our country.”
To confound the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak on U.S. soil,one has to consider the intentional introduction of foreign animal disease.Bioterrorism attempts have happened before, he tells DVM Newsmagazine.
In 2001, post-9/11, Allard remembers fielding questions following the finding of an anthrax-laced letter in the Hart Senate Office Building.
“It’s a real threat and because of it, we need to be prepared to deal with it, both from a preventive standpoint as well as in case of an actual emergency.Veterinarians are key to dealing with this question.”
The incident underscores a need to respond. The legislation is an answer, he adds. Stalled in committee last year, the bill has “a decent chance of moving in the early part of this session. That’s what we are hoping, and we are pushing it.”
And while it strives to address an important veterinary issue, it’s just one in a sea of bills fighting to make its way through the process.
So,what’s on the Congressional watch list? A bill to ban the practice of horse slaughter ranks high, AVMA reports.
While veterinarian and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, champions legislation to ban the practice of horse slaughter, Allard remains squarely opposed.
S.1915 is up for debate in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and its companion bill in the
House (H.R.503) is under review by the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“We found various horse organizations were divided on that, and the AVMA was opposed to it. I agreed with the association,” Allard says.
“I think it is one of those situations that people are well-meaning, but they don’t understand the full implications of taking away horse slaughter. It is one alternative that we need to keep out there, and we can slaughter horses in a humane way.”
On other issues, he’s most proud of tax law changes that he championed to benefit small business. One change includes “an expensing provision that we put in the last tax prevail which would allow you to write off $100,000 in expenses in one year. So, if you went out and bought that ambulatory truck or piece of equipment, you could write that off in one year instead of having it depreciated over five years or 10 years in some cases.”
“That was a huge boost for small business. It was also a huge boost to our economy because a lot of small businesses took advantage of that.”
The political race
For this former mixed animal practitioner, owner and formerly boarded member of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, his segue into politics came “after I got mad at government.”
As a practice owner, he recalls that increasing taxes, the Clean Water Act, and a flurry of activity at the local and state level motivated his political action.
His ire turned to victory when he entered politics for the first time.
From his hometown of Loveland,Colo., Allard hit the campaign trail in 1982 vying for a seat in the Colorado Senate. He won and served in that capacity until 1990, when he moved to Washington following a successful bid to the U.S. House of
Representatives. In 1997, he was sworn into the U.S.Senate and was successful in his re-election bid in 2002.
A daunting pace
Washington politics came with an almost immediate understanding that a senatorial seat is clearly “more than any one person could ever do.”
The other revelation:You work seven days a week. “If you are the type of person who watches the clock, the Senate is probably not the job for you. It’s the same thing as running your own business.You put in long hours,more than anyone else.”
A typical day starts at 6:30 a.m.with personal exercise.He is running the rest of it.
His entire day is spent in meetings with constituents, legislative discussions and interacting with various agencies and Senate staffers. On Fridays, he flies back to Colorado, and on Mondays he heads back to Washington.“Then there are people you have to meet with on Saturdays and Sundays. No, I don’t get much time off,” he laughs.
But, he says he entered politics to make a difference in the lives of his constituents in the state and for Americans. It’s a process
that he encourages veterinarians to become involved with at the local, state and federal levels of government.
“I think it is important for veterinarians to get involved in their communities. People like to see a veterinarian in public office because they bring a lot to the discussion.”