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Brian Gehring, The Bismarck Tribune, Published May 20 2012

North Dakota Ag Dept. helps rural veterinarians pay off debt

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Department of Agriculture since 2008 has helped 15 veterinarians set up practice in rural communities and helped them repay a significant portion of their student loan debt.

North Dakota does not so much have a shortage of veterinarians, but it is difficult to recruit them to smaller communities, Deputy State Veterinarian Beth Carlson said.

The state program established in 2008 is in addition to a national program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the national Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.

State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said that at one time there were two areas in the state designated to receive funding to encourage vets to provide services under the national repayment program. Now there are seven counties with that designation, he said: Bowman, Slope, McKenzie, McIntosh and portions of Dickey, Emmons and Logan.

Through the USDA program, recently graduated veterinarians can have up to $25,000 of their debt repaid by signing a contract to practice in a rural area for at least three years.

Benefits are limited to payments on the principal and interest on government and commercial loans received for earning a doctoral degree of veterinary medicine or the equivalent.

Carlson said that while the two programs are similar in intent, there are differences. For example, the deadline to apply for the USDA program is June 15 and the state deadline is Jan. 31.

Carlson said that during the winter, the state reviews areas of the state it deems to be underserved and forwards them to USDA.

The federal program offers a three-year contract for repayment of $25,000, while the state program has more options, Carlson said.

She said veterinarians accepted into the state program can sign a two-year contract that pays up to $30,000, a three-year contract that pays up to $55,000 or a four-year contract that pays up to $80,000.

Marie Henderson of the New Salem Veterinary Clinic has taken advantage of the state program.

Growing up on a beef cattle ranch in South Carolina, Henderson said she knew at a young age that being a veterinarian was her career calling. She received her degree in veterinary medicine from Tuskegee University in Alabama and applied for the state repayment program for two years while practicing in Cooperstown before being accepted.

During her eight years of education, Henderson compiled a debt in the neighborhood of $150,000.

She took the job in New Salem about two years ago, signing a three-year contract through the state program that will pay off $55,000 of her student loan debt.

Henderson said she had options of working in a veterinary practice specializing in small animals where starting pay is about $80,000 a year. She opted to take about $30,000 a year less to work in a small town in North Dakota.

“I like the small towns,” she said. And living in a a rural area affords her the opportunity to care for everything from cattle and sheep to the family dog or cat.

Henderson said that while she could be making more money in a larger city, the payback program helps her serve areas that need the help, and at the same time helps her make ends meet.

“Small animal practices do pay better,” she said, “but I would rather live in rural area. But it can be a struggle to pay the bills.”

Carlson said one of the obstacles in trying to attract veterinarians to rural areas is there often are not many jobs available for their spouses.

There also is a growing disparity between the cost of getting a veterinary medicine degree and the pay scale. Carlson said that in the 15 years since she received her degree from Iowa State University, tuition costs have about doubled, while starting pay for veterinarians has increased by only about 30 percent.

“And that’s probably being generous,” she said. “But it does make it more difficult to recruit veterinarians to rural areas.”


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