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Idaho Senate approves incentive for veterinary students

Courtesy of WSU College of Veterinary Medicine
The WSU veterinary college in Pullman is one of the nearest training programs for Idaho students.

The bill would provide three years of loan repayment for vets who come back to Idaho to practice.

The Idaho legislature is considering incentives to attract workers in several industries, including veterinary medicine.

The Senate voted Tuesday to repay up to $75,000 in debt for up to 10 Idaho veterinary students who leave the state and then come back to work in Idaho, says the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum). Her bill would allow students to qualify for up to $25,000 of debt repayment for three years.

“We put in the bill they would have to stay for four years,” she said. “This is a way for us to have veterinarians, similar to what we’re doing with doctors with the WWAMI program, to be dedicated to be in these rural areas for a length of time. If they don’t meet that criteria, they pay back. They’ve broken the contract.”

Stennett referred to a bill that would require Idaho students in the University of Washington’s five-state WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) medical school to make a four-year commitment to work in Idaho in exchange for receiving subsidized tuition rates. That would also apply to 10 Idaho students attending the University of Utah’s medical school. That legislation has been approved by the state House and is now before a Senate committee.

With Stennett’s veterinary bill, the debt repayment would be limited to veterinarians who care for large production animals, such as cows and steers. She says most of today’s veterinary students are training to care for pets.

“They are going to small animal practice because it pays a lot more and it’s easier to do and I don’t blame them. They’ve got a lot of debt,” Stennett said. But, “that is creating a bigger and bigger deficit in our rural areas. If they can do some small animal practice in addition to making sure that they’re covering their area for the large animal production, that is a way for them to actually have their business survive.”

Another trend going against vets is powerful new competition in the animal pharmaceutical industry.

“I’m sure all of you have seen on TV or in ads 1-800-Pet-Meds or Chewy. Now that revenue stream is being lost,” said Sen. Robert Blair (R-Lewiston). “The other thing that is happening is a lot of over-the-counter medicines are now needing to be administered by veterinarians. We have a need in this state.”

That last point was reinforced by several ranching legislators who spoke Tuesday on the Senate floor. They said their veterinarians are either aging, retired or have left the area. That’s a problem, said Sen. Mark Harris (R-Soda Springs), whenever he has an urgent problem with one of his animals. He cited a recent case where he had two cows who needed caesarian sections to deliver calves.

“If I don’t have a vet that can be there right now, I would have to call one from Pocatello or someplace else and I would have lost both of those cows, both of them calves,” Harris said.

Harris said his veterinarian is 65 years old and he wonders how he’ll be able to replace him when the time comes.

Sen. Van Burtenshaw (R-Jefferson County) says he’s looking for a new vet and may not be able to find one who can serve his animals’ needs who lives less than 75 miles away. That’s an inconvenience because he says he needs a certificate signed by a veterinarian every time he ships a cow across state lines or attends an out-of-state rodeo.

“It’s getting harder and harder and the vets are getting fewer and fewer. This is a need we have in rural Idaho and we have more cattle in this state than we have population at this time.”

Idaho doesn’t have its own veterinary school. The nearest institutions are Washington State University in Pullman, University of California-Davis, Colorado State University in Fort Collins and Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Maybe it’s time for Idaho to open its own veterinary school, said Sen. Mary Souza (R-Coeur d’Alene). She suggested the agriculture industry consider creating one and referred as an example to a private medical school that opened in 2016 on the Idaho State University campus in Meridian.

“It doesn’t have to be a public institution and industry could do that in order to keep the supply of veterinarians in Idaho,” she said.

Opponents argued there isn't enough proof that incentives like those proposed are powerful enough to bring veterinarians to rural areas. Others said they were disappointed that industry representatives weren't a bigger partner in writing the bill. Stennett countered by saying many of them endorsed her legislation.

The Senate approved the proposal by a 28-to-seven vote and sent it to the House.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on March 25.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.