April 13, 2018

Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Veterinarians: Confusing, but Important.

By Laura MacIntyre

So far, the AVMA externship program has been a blast and the most unique externship I have had during my fourth year of veterinary school. Within the first two weeks, Hibah and I have settled into our offices, met the GRD staff, met with the AVMA Legislative fellows, observed planning for a future AVMA convention, attended lectures and forums on international affairs, attended a One Health Academy series lecture on Harmful Algal Blooms, observed the AVMA’s Legislative Advisory Committee discuss the AVMA’s position on legislative issues, met with the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, met army veterinarians at the Department of Defense and met three Congressional members. (Phew, that’s a lot of things!). Everyone we have met has been extremely welcoming and we feel very fortunate to have had these experiences. Additionally, I have had the time to enjoy this beautiful city with trips to the National Mall (with the cherry blossoms in full bloom) and museums, while eating too much yummy food all along the way!

From all these varied activities, I wanted my first blog post to highlight legislative issues directly affecting the veterinary student community and why veterinary students should be paying attention to these issues. When the AVMA’s Legislative Advisory Committee (LAC) visited their Congressional members’ offices on the Hill to discuss important legislative issues affecting the veterinary profession, Hibah and I were lucky enough to tag along on some of the visits. During our meeting with Representative Bera (D-CA 7th District), he first asked Hibah and I what were the concerns of the students. Without hesitation, me and Hibah both addressed the significant debt burden that veterinary students face upon graduation.

With the average debt carried by veterinarians at over $140,000 at graduation and the average starting salary for those that accept a full-time position in private practice at $70,000, loan repayments are a significant challenge for new graduates to achieve basic financial stability. This is in contrast to human family physicians and interns who typically begin earning solid six-figure salaries after residency. While every veterinary student or veterinarian I have ever met has joined the profession to positively impact animal health and not for financial compensation, the financial burden is causing the profession to become less and less sustainable.

This is very unfortunate because veterinarians contribute to society in so many different avenues and offer a diverse, adaptable skill set unique to any other profession. While veterinarians work on small animal and large animal clinical health, they also serve positions in Homeland Security, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, research laboratories, the US Agency for International Development, United States Department of Agriculture, the US Public Health Service and many other organizations. Yet because of the significant debt burden, veterinary students often choose to go into private practice over jobs in the public sector in order to maintain a higher salary and contribute more to their loan payments.

One of the specific pieces of legislation the AVMA advocates for, The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, was created to encourage professionals, including veterinarians, to enter into needed public service jobs.

This program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer. 

This means a veterinarian can have their loans forgiven tax-free after 10 years if:

  1. They work for a government organization or non-profit 501 (c)(3) organizations: These include the previous public service jobs described above, but also include not-for-profit shelters and other not for profit hospitals.
  2. Their loans are direct federal student loans.
  3. They pay every monthly payment of an income-driven repayment plan for 120 payments (10 years).

Unfortunately, this legislation has caused much confusion for borrowers and has very specific guidelines that are often misleading or difficult to understand. Fall of 2017 was the first time borrowers were able to have their loans forgiven under this program and many who applied were denied due to inconsistency with the requirements. Because the government felt they didn’t adequately educate borrowers on PSLF, Congress allocated $350 million this month to cover borrowers that were enrolled in the wrong repayment program, but contributed 10 years of payments. Additionally, there is a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Form borrowers can fill out and submit to ensure they meet all the proper guidelines in their current area of employment to qualify for the program.

Sadly, there is discussion to discontinue the program. This is disappointing in the opportunities it would dissolve, but also because only one group has completed the first program and we don’t have significant data yet on how the program affects the public sector or public-sector job growth.

It is important for veterinary students to be aware of loan forgiveness options and speak up to keep programs that are beneficial for the veterinary profession. From my experience at a previous Fly-In and visiting the Hill this week, congressional members and their staff really do enjoy hearing the perspectives of their student constituents. In one of our meetings, one of the staff members for Senator Risch commented that he remembered a veterinary student from the Legislative Fly-In because of how passionately she spoke about student loans issues. Many other LAC members experienced similar comments during their visits on the Hill. The majority of people don’t understand the veterinary student experience, the veterinary profession or challenges are profession face because it is a small and unique profession. That’s why it is important that veterinarians advocate and educate local and federal legislators about the roles veterinarians contribute to society and why we have programs that help encourage veterinarians to fill these much-needed positions.