Washington, D.C. – The chief executive of the nation’s largest veterinary association appeared before a Senate subcommittee today, addressing an alarming new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that details a dangerous shortage of veterinarians available to fill critical positions in the federal government.
Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Subcommittee that the federal veterinary shortage described in the GAO report could have profound effects on animal and public health.
The GAO report, “Veterinarian Workforce Actions Are Needed to Ensure Sufficient Capacity for Protecting Public Health,” depicts a grave scenario of federal agencies that face a lack of current and future veterinarians to fill critical positions. For example, the report states that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has an on-the-job vacancy rate of up to 35 percent, and the agency’s Agriculture Research Service has a 12 percent shortage of mission-critical veterinarians. According to the report, 27 percent of veterinarians employed by the U.S. Army, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA are eligible to retire within three years.
Should a catastrophic event occur, such as the introduction of a disease devastating to the food animal population, the GAO determined that workforce shortages could stress federal agencies’ response.
“It is alarming to see in black-and-white how ill-prepared our nation appears to be in the event of a major animal disease outbreak, or worse, a pandemic,” Dr. DeHaven told the subcommittee. “Equally disconcerting is the lack of an integrated approach for assessing the current and future needs of the veterinary workforce by many federal agencies that rely on veterinarians to fill critically important public health, food safety and animal health roles.”
Dr. DeHaven told the subcommittee that the federal veterinary shortage has multiple causes. Specifically, he pointed to soaring veterinary student debt, noncompetitive federal salaries, limited ability to increase the number of veterinarians graduating from veterinary schools, and a demographic shift of students away from the rural farm settings that historically produced many food animal veterinarians as reasons for a declining applicant pool.
To address the critical shortage of federal veterinarians, the AVMA has sought legislation to provide increased funding to expand capacity at the nation’s 28 veterinary colleges. The AVMA is also working with Congress to change the compensation for federal veterinarians so it is on par with other federal health professionals, and to reduce student debt through loan repayment programs.
The National Veterinary Medical Service Act (NVMSA), which exchanges student loan debt relief for graduates who commit to serving in the field of food supply veterinary medicine, was signed into law by Congress in 2003, but no benefits have been realized due to limitations in funding and delays in implementation.
“Our concerns about NVMSA are echoed in the GAO report, which indicates that officials from the USDA believe the money allocated to the program thus far is insufficient and would have minimal impact on the shortage,” Dr. DeHaven said.
With a long history of working with Congress and federal agencies to address the veterinary shortage, the AVMA, according to Dr. DeHaven, remains dedicated to pre-empting challenges to public health. “I am confident that by working together, we can address these challenges, welcome more bright minds into the veterinary profession and provide our citizens the level of food safety and security they deserve and expect,” he said. View Dr. DeHaven’s written testimony.
The AVMA and its more than 78,000 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health. Visit the AVMA Web site at www.avma.org for more information.