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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act

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Mr. JOHNSON of South Dakota. Mr. President, I rise today to reintroduce the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act with my friend, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho. This bipartisan bill would exempt Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, VMLRP, awards from federal income taxation in order to increase veterinary services in areas around the country that lack adequate veterinary expertise.

Authorized in 2003 by the National Veterinary Medical Services Act, NVMSA, the United States Department of Agriculture's, USDA, Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program serves a dual purpose in assisting qualified veterinarians in reducing their student debt while also alleviating veterinarian shortages in rural areas. Specifically, the program authorizes the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NIFA, to repay up to $25,000 of a veterinarian's debt per year if they agree to serve in high-priority veterinary shortage areas for at least 3 years. However, awards under the program continue to be taxed at a rate of 39 percent, effectively limiting the number of awards that can be provided and delaying veterinary services to areas in desperate need. The awards are taxed with the tax payments paid under the program by the federal government, and the tax payments themselves are also taxed.

The Department of Agriculture determines whether an area is eligible for assistance under the VMLRP through a ``shortage situation'' declaration process. Currently, two circumstances lead to such a designation. A geographic designation is made when a given geographic area suffers from a shortage of veterinarians overall and an area can also be designated as a shortage area when it suffers from a shortage of veterinarians who practice in a particular field of veterinary specialty. Currently, my home state of South Dakota has 6 designated shortage situations; three of them are statewide designations noting a shortage of practitioners in veterinary specialties. Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment of veterinarians will grow by 36 percent by 2020, creating a need for 22,000 additional veterinarians. The future growth and increased demand for veterinarians becomes even more pressing when considered in combination with national statistics that show
dozens of counties across the country that have more than 25,000 food animals but zero veterinarians.

Attaining a professional degree in a specialized and advanced field like veterinary medicine takes more than academic fortitude and personal dedication. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, the average VMLRP award recipient in Fiscal Year 2011 had an average eligible debt of over $100,000. Given the financial resources necessary to pursue a degree in higher education, I have long fought for this legislation to make it easier for students to pay off their loans. While South Dakota is truly a wonderful place to call home, it is a difficult place for a young veterinarian to earn a living when saddled with 6 figures of school debt. My legislation will help by enhancing the assistance veterinary graduates receive in exchange for meaningful public service while also providing important services to underserved rural areas.

With an economic impact of $21.4 billion each year, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, the importance of agriculture to the South Dakota economy cannot be understated. Our ranchers, many of whom operate in very rural areas, rely on the access they have to qualified veterinarians to care for their livestock and many of them must drive long distances to access the nearest veterinarian that works with their specific type of livestock. This lack of adequate access to veterinary services could have ramifications for both human and animal health, as well as animal welfare, disease surveillance, public safety and economic development. Farmers and ranchers make their living in agriculture but food security is fundamentally in all of our interests. Everyone in America benefits from the veterinary services provided in even the most remote areas of the country. As such, I am committed to doing all I can to help bring veterinarians to underserved parts of our state.

I am proud to have fought for the establishment of the VMLRP program and for securing funding for the program through my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Unfortunately, the 39 percent tax that is assessed on these benefits continues diminish the full benefits of the program. With enactment of this legislation, for every three veterinarians selected for the loan repayment awards, an additional veterinarian could also be selected to serve in an underserved shortage area. Moreover, such an exemption is not without precedent. In 2004, Congress exempted from taxation the assistance received by participants in the National Health Services Corps, NHSC.

It should be noted that nearly 140 organizations from across the nation have announced their support for a tax exemption for VMLRP, including the South Dakota Veterinary Medical Association, South Dakota Farmers Union, South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, South Dakota Pork Producers Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sheep Industry Association, the National Farmers Union, and many, many others.

The VMLRP has had proven success in providing our agricultural producers with access to the veterinary services that they need to be effective. In fiscal year 2011, the program filled at least one shortage area in 35 States. Through the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, we can ensure that the program, and the awards offered through it, is continued and strengthened for the benefit of our students, rural communities, and family farms and ranches.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a letter of support be printed in the Record.

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