WASHINGTON — Dr. Michael Blackwell isn't ungrateful. But the $500,000 grants tied to the U.S. Senate's version of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, passed in July, will do little to add seats to the University of Tennessee's (UT) veterinary program. Such funds fall short of expanding even one classroom, and neglect the public's need for more DVMs, the veterinary college dean explains.
"I'm disappointed because I'm in a position to know that we've got national security hanging on whether or not we sufficiently address the shortage of veterinarians," Blackwell says. "I can't think of anything we can do with $500,000 that would increase the number of veterinarians we graduate. It's just inadequate."
That's the assessment of most veterinary college deans surveyed by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC).In July, the Senate authorized a modified version of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act as an amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Bill. While its passage initially was celebrated, a closer look reveals funding restrictions that translate to far less than the $1.5 billion originally requested to fuel 10 years worth of competitive grants. The program is designed to increase the number of veterinarians working in food safety, food systems, biomedical research and other public health-related areas of veterinary medicine.
But a Senate rewrite replaced language outlining capital construction needs with "minor renovations," defined as projects costing no more than $500,000 each. The program also was reduced to five years, AAVMC officials explain.
Dr. Ralph Richardson calls the cuts "sobering."
"It just puts window-dressing on what we really need," the dean of Kansas State University's veterinary program says.
The bill, which remains in its original form in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and could go up for hearing this month, is designed to beef up the pool of 2,500 veterinarians now graduating annually.
For Blackwell, its a directive that translates to roughly $30 million that UT needs to build classrooms, laboratories and hire faculty for an additional 50 seats.
"The bill's intent is to educate veterinarians for positions in public health and research that are directly geared toward food safety as well as control measures for infectious diseases," he says. "These are national security matters. I think it's an unfortunate position to be in at this point to have to go back and re-educate policymakers on what kind of support the veterinary colleges really need."
Yet AAVMC plans to do just that, armed with its survey of deans calling for more money to effectuate change. Whether in the House's edition of the Higher Education Reauthorization Bill or its version of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, association officials promise to work toward getting more concessions passed.
"We're finding out very clearly that the language that came out of the Senate is inadequate," AAVMC Associate Executive Director Dr. Michael Chaddock says. "Our colleges are saying, 'Hey, we're not going to be able to do what society needs.' I'm still very optimistic, but clearly, we have to work on getting Congress to understand that."