Above: Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program on June 5, 2017, as Dr. Lora Bledsoe, Dr. Mark Stetter, Rep. Joann Ginal, Dr. Sam Romano, and Leo Boyle look on. (Photo provided by Richard Schweigert)
Signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper on June 5, 2017, the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program paves the way for veterinarians to work in rural communities where large and small animals, and their owners, need professional services.
Like most accomplishments in rural Colorado, the passage of the bill was the result of hard work by a group of people who care deeply about agriculture. Thanks to bipartisan support from Rep. Joann Ginal (D-Fort Collins) and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Northeastern Colorado), and input from the state Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Mark Stetter and leaders from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences successfully steered the bill to the governor’s desk.
“Dr. Mark Stetter, Dr. Ashley Stokes, and their team have a global, holistic vision of the state that really inspired people to work together,” said Dr. Sam Romano, president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and a 1983 alumnus of the CSU veterinary program. “The CSU folks do such a wonderful job putting their effort where their mouth is, helping people and animals.”
With more than 34,000 farms on nearly 32 million acres, Colorado agriculture consistently ranks as one of the state’s top three leading industries, providing more than 173,000 jobs, contributing more than $40 billion to the state’s economy annually, and feeding the world with nearly $2 billion in exported products, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
But there is an acute shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural communities. “Hopefully, this loan repayment program will provide additional opportunities for students to ease the burden of debt and move forward with assisting our agricultural producers with their veterinary needs,” said state Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, a third-generation farmer in Yuma, Colo.
Like their human medicine counterparts, veterinarians are trusted professionals who help tie a community together by caring for animals, supporting their owners, and protecting the food supply. “Veterinarians work very closely with physicians, the communities rely on them. This bill helps maintain the fabric in rural Colorado and keeps it from fraying even more,” said Romano. “Cattle production and agribusiness is important to this state. The meat and the milk don’t just show up in King Soopers by accident.”
Speaking from experience running his family farm in Sterling, Colo., Sonnenberg has seen the need for veterinary care up close.
“Rural Colorado and agriculture are highly dependent on veterinarians,” he said. “It takes a special person to practice in rural areas and many choose another option because of the financial obligations after college. I am anxious to see how many students this will entice to practice in rural communities.”
Once the governor appoints a council to review applications, veterinary medicine graduates from 2017 forward can apply for up to $70,000 in student loan debt relief. Here’s how it works:
- They must have graduated from an accredited doctor of veterinary
- Currently live in Colorado or, at some point, have lived in
Colorado for at least 3 years
- Agree to practice veterinary medicine for up to four years in
a rural area of the state that is experiencing a shortage of
veterinarians as designated by the council for participation in
“One of the things I learned through this process is that the debt young veterinarians come out with is almost $150,000, and what keeps them from working in rural areas is the need to pay off that debt,” said Ginal, who earned her Ph.D. in reproductive endocrinology from Colorado State. “There are a lot of farmers and ranchers out there who need veterinarians, and this is an incentive for those who want to practice in rural areas of Colorado. I really am proud that we passed this bill.”