Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo
Life in rural America is exceptionally enriching. However, those who live in the rural parts of our country also deal with unique challenges. While many times these challenges make them stronger, shortages in certain occupations hinder our economies, threaten our safety and weaken the fabric of communities that are otherwise the rock that our nation is based upon. Food animal veterinarians are a sometimes overlooked but essential sector in human and animal health. Veterinarians defend against animal disease outbreaks, help ensure food safety and animal welfare and strengthen rural communities. Unfortunately, the need for veterinary care in many areas of our nation exceeds the number of available veterinarians and requires attention.
Nationwide, 1,300 counties have less than one food animal veterinarian per 25,000 farm animals. In Idaho alone, 75 percent of our counties are in designated veterinary shortage areas. Of these counties, as many as four counties, with at least 2,000 food animals, have zero food animal veterinarians, and ten counties have less than one food animal veterinarian per 25,000 farm animals. For rural states like Idaho, with geographically large counties, such shortages mean the closest available veterinarian may be hours away. However, this shortage is far more than a limitation on the manpower necessary to meet the veterinary needs of producers. The shortage limits disease surveillance and response as well as animal welfare.
To help address this problem, the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) was created to encourage veterinarians to locate to underserved areas. Through the program, academic loan repayment is provided in exchange for service in veterinarian shortage areas. However, the VMLRP assistance is subject to a 39 percent federal tax, significantly impacting the reach of the program and eroding the ability to properly address the shortage. That is why I am joining with Senator Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) in reintroducing bipartisan legislation to provide a federal income tax exemption for payments received under the VMLRP and similar state programs that increase veterinary care access. This legislation would remove this tax burden to better address the need for veterinarians. In 2004, Congress passed a similar exemption for a federal loan repayment program established to increase medical care in underserved areas.
For a state with more than 2 million head of cattle, more than 200,000 head of sheep and lambs and more than 800,000 head of poultry, access to veterinarian care in Idaho is imperative. Veterinarians in our rural communities often work long hours, making calls at all hours and at times carrying on through severe conditions, to provide needed care for farm animals and serve as part of our first line of defense against animal disease outbreaks and to ensure food safety. We need food animal veterinarians in our communities, and eliminating overly-burdensome taxes on programs that encourage veterinarians to practice in underserved areas would be a positive step in helping to end the shortage of rural veterinary medicine and strengthening our rural communities and nation.
You may access information regarding the VMLRP and applications through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website by the following link: http://www.nifa.usda.gov/nea/animals/in_focus/an_health_if_vmlrp.html.
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