Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Jessica Fay: There aren’t enough veterinarians in Maine and here’s what we can do about it

By State Representative Jessica Fay

Maine has a shortage of veterinarians, and it is growing worse, particularly in rural communities. There are only about 420 veterinarians practicing now in Maine, down from 540 just a few years ago. 

While this shortage is more acute in some areas than in others, it is having an impact on Mainers across the state. It is affecting all sorts of people who love, own and care for animals. Some people are waiting weeks or months for wellness visits for their pets. Dairy and livestock farmers have a hard time finding vets who can make farm calls. Animals are dying in animal shelters for lack of veterinary care.

The high cost of education and relatively low rate of pay for veterinarians in Maine is often blamed for why fewer people are entering the field of veterinary medicine. At Tufts, the closest veterinary school to Maine, the cost of a year of school is around $90,000 including tuition, housing, books, and other fees.   

This high cost leads to veterinary students graduating with significant debt, averaging $183,000 in 2019. At the same time, Maine has the lowest pay for veterinarians in New England.

Compared with our neighbors in New Hampshire, vets in Maine earn about 10% less. Given these factors alone, it is no surprise that Maine has trouble attracting new veterinary school graduates to set up practice here.

We need to be incentivizing more veterinarians to live and work in Maine. After hearing from so many of you regarding your worries about accessing care for your animals, I sponsored a bill titled “An Act To Increase Maine's Veterinary Workforce and Keep Maine Farms Healthy through a Scholarship Program.”

The bill will amend an existing loan program to help veterinary students who want to practice in Maine pay for their education. I was very pleased when the Legislative Council, which is made up of each party’s leaders in the Maine House and Senate, decided in a bipartisan vote that this bill was worthy of consideration. It is encouraging that Democrats and Republicans agree that the Legislature should be examining solutions to Maine’s shortage of veterinarians.

While the exact details are still being worked out, my bill would build upon and improve Maine’s existing veterinary scholarship program. The current program has a maximum of two participants, which doesn’t even begin to address the need. I am proposing to increase this number to 10 students. My bill would also increase the amount of the available forgivable loan, which is currently $25,000, to an amount that would make a meaningful difference in addressing a veterinary graduate’s debt. Protections requiring recipients of the scholarship to stay in Maine or be forced to repay the scholarship would also be in place.

The state needs to act to make sure we have enough vets to keep our pets and livestock healthy. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues to find solutions to Maine’s veterinary workforce shortage. <

Jessica Fay is serving her third term in the Maine Legislature and represents parts of Casco, Poland, and Raymond. She serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

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