Washington, D.C.—From the ever-increasing weight of student loans on the backs of young professionals to the lack of veterinary services across America's rural communities, nearly 70 veterinary students had a lot to say when they met with their legislators this week in the nation's capital as part of AVMA's 2015 Legislative Fly-in. The two-day event gave students the chance to learn more about the federal legislative process and advocate for bills that impact the future of the veterinary profession and U.S. animal agriculture.
"It is always exciting for us to see so many young people come to Washington to share their views on issues that impact the veterinary profession and animal health and welfare," said AVMA President Dr. Ted Cohn. "The rising cost of student debt is on a lot of these students'minds as they plan for their future careers, and opening up more opportunities for veterinarians to serve rural communities in need of public health or food animal medicine is also critical to our nation's agricultural community. We would like to thank these students for exercising their civic duty and hope that the 114th Congress will be responsive to their concerns."
The students focused their meetings with elected officials and their staff on a couple of high-priority pieces of legislation for the veterinary profession: the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) Enhancement Act (S. 440) and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Introduced in the Senate on Feb. 10, S. 440 would help ensure that America's ranchers and farmers get access to the veterinary care they desperately need by maximizing every dollar Congress appropriates to the VMLRP—a program that provides up to $25,000 annually in loan repayments to recipients who practice public health or food animal medicine in designated shortage areas across the country. By removing a 39 percent withholding tax on program awards, as Congress did for its counterpart program for human health medicine back in 2004, more veterinarians would be able to support rural communities in need of veterinary services. Since the program's inception in 2010, 286 veterinarians have participated in the program, but had the tax been removed, 100 more veterinarians, out of the nearly 860 who have applied, could have served areas across the country.
The participants also talked with legislators about the burden that educational debt is having on young professionals, particularly in the veterinary medical field where the average graduating debt for veterinarians has increased roughly 7.5 percent annually over the last decade to $135,283 in 2014. The students urged Congress to alleviate this financial burden when it reauthorizes the Higher Education Act by: improving the terms and conditions on federal student loans for veterinary students; maintaining the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which provides incentives for veterinarians to practice in the public sector; and offering students the ability to reconsolidate or refinance their loans.
As part of their visit to the nation's capital, the students also heard from three veterinarians in Congress, including co-chairs of the House Veterinary Medicine Caucus Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), as well as freshman Congressman Ralph Abraham (R-La.).
"I commend you for being up here. You guys are setting yourselves apart from the masses. You are doing today, what others won't, so that you can do tomorrow what others can't," said Rep. Yoho. "I want you to look three to five years down the road. Where do you see yourself? It's the preparation you're doing right now that is setting yourself up [for your future]. … Success is not built on convenience—if it was, everyone would be successful. Success is built on inconvenience, and it might have been easier for you guys to stay at home or be doing something else right now, but it's by inconveniencing yourself today that is helping set up for your future."
The 66 students represented 26 veterinary schools across the country. The seventh annual AVMA Legislative Fly-in was sponsored by Banfield Pet Hospital and the Student American Veterinary Medical Association and received additional support from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. See the association's website for more information about the annual legislative fly-in and visit the AVMA Congressional Advocacy Network's Facebook page to view pictures from the event.