Legislators urge loan forgiveness for veterinary grads

Legislators aim to combat declining numbers of large animal veterinarians.

Once they graduate from college, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates veterinary students will have racked up more than $106,000 worth of debt. Now, state legislators are coming to their rescue with a bill to lighten their loads. In response to a growing shortage of large animal veterinarians in rural areas, the proposal would grant up to $15,000 a year in educational loan repayment for five years to recent graduates of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs College of Veterinary Medicine who agree to work in underserved Minnesota counties. Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt , a co-author of the bill, said itâÄôs an attempt to attract more people to large animal veterinary medicine in addition to keeping graduates in the state. Skogen, who serves Otter Tail and Wadena counties, said there is a lot of farming in his area and a shortage of veterinarians to take care of the animals. He blamed hard, often dangerous, physical labor and unpredictable hours. âÄúI think people who are interested in veterinarian work find the path of least resistance is dogs and cats, the âÄòpet vets,âÄô âÄù he said. âÄúThey can make a good living and donâÄôt have to go through some of the unusual work of the large animals.âÄù In 2008, out of the 90 graduates from the college, only 13 went into large animal practice. Large animals include horses and food animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry. Trevor Ames, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine , said while the college has been trying to combat the decline in large animal students over the past six years, the billâÄôs economic incentive would serve as the final capstone. Ames, who has testified before House and Senate committees in support of the bill, said with agriculture being such a key component of MinnesotaâÄôs economy, there needs to be trained professionals tending to the food animals. âÄúThey play this vital role in protecting the agricultural economy and protecting the safety of our food supply and protecting the welfare of these animals in the state,âÄù he said. Ames attributed the disparity between the number of small and large animal veterinarians to better pay in the small animal sector. According to a 2006 Academic Health Center report, the average starting salary for small animal veterinarians is $80,000 compared with $62,000 for large animal veterinarians. If the bill is passed, $225,000 from the stateâÄôs general budget would be appropriated to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture , who would choose up to five applicants a year to receive the loan repayment. But given the poor economy, Skogen said, bills with financial implications are having a hard time getting anywhere. âÄúIt would put a hole in our general fund budget, which has a pretty big hole in it already,âÄù he said. The bill is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday in the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division . The Senate Finance Committee has yet to schedule a hearing. Large animal veterinarian student Nathan Schaefer said heâÄôs worked in communities that are underserved with respect to large animal veterinarians, both in his hometown in Iowa and in Pipestone, Minn. Many of the veterinarians in these and other areas are retiring and canâÄôt find replacements, he said. In 2003, the federal government passed the National Veterinary Medical Services Act to provide loan repayment to veterinarians who agree to work in rural communities throughout the United States. But the $1 million that come out of the program per year is not enough, Ames said. Meanwhile, 13 states have implemented legislation that supplements the federal loan forgiveness program. Schaefer said the bill would help students who feel restricted by high debt and would otherwise turn to a more lucrative field. âÄúThe school is doing everything it can to help recruit large animal and food animal veterinarians, but thereâÄôs not enough,âÄù he said. âÄúThey need to work more, and this bill is a step in the right direction.âÄù