The president of the American Veterinary Medical Association appeared before a Congressional subcommittee and urged the USDA to implement a critically needed program that would help address a worsening shortage in the number of veterinarians who protect the country's food supply.
Gregory S. Hammer, president of the AVMA, testified before the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry that the delay in implementing the National Veterinary Medical Service Act puts U.S. economic and food safety at risk.
"The problems worsen each and every day the program remains nonfunctional," Hammer said. "This has all the makings of a crisis if we don't act now."
The Act, which was signed into law by President George Bush in 2003 and which received funding in Fiscal Years 2006-2008, is a loan repayment program for veterinarians who pledge to practice in a variety of underserved areas of veterinary medicine, including food supply veterinary medicine.
“With the average veterinary school graduate's debt climbing to $106,000, the program is essential if more food supply veterinarians are going to be added to the workforce”, Hammer said.
Estimates show that the supply of veterinarians working in food safety will have a 4 to 5 percent shortfall annually through 2016.
"These food supply veterinarians are the guardians of our nation's food supply, and they will be the first medical professionals to diagnose and contain diseases in animals that may spread to humans," Hammer said.
Officials with the USDA testified during the hearing that they lack the capability to administer the loan repayment program, saying that "such programs have never been the function" of the agency. They also indicated that the Act's language complicates the process by not allowing them to work with the nation's 28 colleges of veterinary medicine to coordinate the program.
Members of the subcommittee, however, questioned why USDA considers the act hard to implement.
"In crafting this Act in 2003, the Committee worked closely with USDA to ensure proper implementation of a simple and straightforward program that would allow USDA to offer incentives to large animal veterinarians to practice in underserved rural communities," said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa). "It is frustrating that four years later, USDA is now bringing concerns to our attention."
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), and ranking member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, testified that Congress has appropriated about $1.9 million for NVMSA. He warned, however, that future funding may be at risk if the USDA doesn't implement the program.
"We will think long and hard before we put any more money into it without seeing any movement by USDA," he said. Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who represents an area where the 500,000 farm animals are only slightly less than the 700,000 human residents, encouraged the USDA to act quickly in implementing the Act.
"This Act is necessary," Kagen said, "because the animals can't fix themselves."