The benefits of living in rural Idaho communities are abundant—easy access to outdoor activities, strong sense of community, great places to raise children, neighbors banding together in times of need or to celebrate accomplishments and much more. But, some dealing with trying to pay high student loans may face challenges with locating anywhere they want. Bipartisan legislation I introduced would make it easier for veterinarians to locate in rural communities with veterinarian shortages. This legislation is meant to improve ranchers and farmers’ access to care for their livestock by helping to ensure veterinarians can serve in rural areas where they are needed most, helping to strengthen rural economies and protecting the safety of our food supply.
Greg Ibach, Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), testified before Congress about efforts to address pressing animal health issues. He discussed the importance of timely response in stopping the spread of various outbreaks of animal pests and diseases, including avian influenza in the Midwest, New World screwworm in the Florida Keys and virulent Newcastle Disease in southern California. He also discussed ongoing efforts to prevent threats, such as African Swine Fever and foot-and-mouth disease. It is clear that our nation must be vigilant in protecting our food supply from animal pests and diseases.
Veterinarians working in agricultural communities across our nation are a key part of being able to quickly respond to emerging threats and maintain animal health and welfare. Unfortunately, nearly every state has a rural community that suffers from a shortage in essential veterinary services. Three areas in Idaho are among the 190USDA-designated veterinary shortage areas for this year.
To help address the need for veterinarian services, in 2003, Congress established the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP). The VMLRP assists selected food animal and public health veterinarians with student loan repayment for a three-year commitment to practice in areas of the country facing a veterinarian shortage. The program helps veterinarians with daunting student loan debt make a living in a community where starting a practice may be otherwise financially impossible. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports three veterinarians were matched to serve in Idaho in 2018.
The VMLRP, however, is subject to a significant 39 percent federal withholding tax on the assistance provided to qualifying veterinarians. This overly burdensome tax limits the reach of the program and its benefits. Applications for the program since it began are nearly three times the number of awards provided. S. 1163, the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (VMLRPEA) would address this limitation by providing an exemption from the federal income withholding tax for payments received under the VMLRP and similar state programs, allowing more veterinarians to have the opportunity to practice in small, rural communities where their services are in critical need.
A bipartisan group of 12 senators, including fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), have backed the legislation so far this Congress. Additionally, a coalition of more than 160 local and national animal health, welfare and agricultural organizations have urged Congress to pass the bill.
In Idaho, where cattle outnumber people, the livestock sector is an important part of our economy. The USDA reported that Idaho dairy production’s market value in 2017 alone was more than $2.3 billion; cattle and calves more than $1.7 billion; and more than $42 million from sheep, goats, wool and mohair. Elimination of this burdensome tax provision will help ensure access to needed veterinarian care and meet the growing demand for veterinarians nationwide.