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Feds Must Assess Veterinarian Workforce Needs

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  • Feds Must Assess Veterinarian Workforce Needs

    by Mickey McCarter
    Animal doctors vital to homeland security, GAO says

    A growing shortage of veterinarians worldwide have led to current or potential veterinarian workforce shortages in the federal government, which may find itself lacking necessary expertise in the event of a catastrophe such as an outbreak of avian influenza, according to a report from congressional investigators released Thursday.

    The American Veterinary Medical Association told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the veterinarian shortage places the nation's food supply at risk and could impede a response to a pandemic originating from animals, said the GAO report, titled "Veterinarian Workforce: Actions Are Needed to Ensure Sufficient Capacity for Protecting Public and Animal Health."

    The veterinarian shortage is expected to worsen, as the 28 US veterinary colleges can graduate only 2,500 students annually, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increase in demand for veterinarians of 35 percent from 2006-2016. As such, the demand for 62,000 full-time veterinarians in 2006 will rise to 84,000 in 2016. In response, Congress has passed legislation recently to encourage increased opportunities and enrollment at veterinary colleges.

    More than 3,000 veterinarians work for the federal government in agencies at the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Homeland Security (DHS), contributing to plans to keep American agriculture secure.

    For example, the veterinarians at DHS, which employs a small number of them overall, work to develop policies for defending the national food supply against natural or man-made emergencies. Veterinarians at the Animal Research Service at the Department of Agriculture have been vital to the agency's research on the detection of avian influenza and the development of vaccines for the bird flu.

    But the US federal government has not conducted any broad, comprehensive assessment of its veterinarian workforce needs, despite the important contributions of veterinarians to homeland security, the GAO report noted, although some individual agencies have made smaller assessments.

    HHS is one department that has not assessed its veterinarian workforce needs departmentwide, with HHS officials reporting to GAO that they did not feel veterinarians were mission critical.

    Federal agencies reviewed by the GAO generally agreed with its recommendations on their veterinarian workforce. DHS objected to a GAO conclusion that one of its veterinarian workforce estimates is impractical and thus irrelevant.

    http://www.hstoday.us/content/view/7313/128/
    The salvage of human life ought to be placed above barter and exchange ~ Louis Harris, 1918

  • #2
    GAO Summary

    Veterinarians are essential for controlling zoonotic diseases--which spread between animals and humans--such as avian influenza. Most federal veterinarians work in the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Defense (DOD), and Health and Human Services (HHS).

    However, there is a growing national shortage of veterinarians. GAO determined the extent to which (1) the federal government has assessed the sufficiency of its veterinarian workforce for routine activities, (2) the federal government has identified the veterinarian workforce needed during a catastrophic event, and (3) federal and state agencies encountered veterinarian workforce challenges during four recent zoonotic outbreaks.

    GAO surveyed 24 federal entities about their veterinarian workforce; analyzed agency workforce, pandemic, and other plans; and interviewed federal and state officials that responded to four recent zoonotic outbreaks.

    The federal government lacks a comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of its veterinarian workforce. More specifically, four of five component agencies GAO reviewed have assessed the sufficiency of their veterinarian workforce to perform routine activities and have identified current or future concerns. This includes USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and Agricultural Research Service (ARS); and DOD's Army.

    Current and future shortages, as well as noncompetitive salaries, were among the concerns identified by these agencies. HHS's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not perform such assessments and did not identify any concerns. In addition, at the department level, USDA and HHS have not assessed their veterinarian workforces across their component agencies, but DOD has a process for doing so. Moreover, there is no governmentwide effort to search for shared solutions, even though 16 of the 24 federal entities that employ veterinarians raised concerns about the sufficiency of this workforce.

    Further exacerbating these concerns is the number of veterinarians eligible to retire in the near future. GAO's analysis revealed that 27 percent of the veterinarians at APHIS, FSIS, ARS, Army, and FDA will be eligible to retire within 3 years. Efforts to identify the veterinarian workforce needed for a catastrophic event are insufficient. Specifically, agencies' plans lack important elements necessary for continuing essential veterinarian functions during a pandemic, such as identifying which functions must be performed on-site and how they will be carried out if absenteeism reaches 40 percent--the rate predicted at the height of the pandemic and used for planning purposes.

    In addition, one federal effort to prepare for the intentional introduction of a foreign animal disease is based on the unrealistic assumption that all affected animals will be slaughtered, as the United States has done for smaller outbreaks, making the resulting veterinarian workforce estimates irrelevant. A second effort lacks crucial data, including data on how the disease would spread in wildlife. If wildlife became infected, as they have in the past, response would be greatly complicated and could require more veterinarians and different expertise. Officials from federal and state agencies involved in four recent zoonotic disease outbreaks commonly cited insufficient veterinarian capacity as a workforce challenge.

    However, 10 of the 17 agencies that GAO interviewed have not assessed their own veterinarian workforce's response to individual outbreaks and are thus missing opportunities to improve future responses. Moreover, none of the entities GAO reviewed has looked across outbreaks to identify common workforce challenges and possible solutions.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to help ensure the federal veterinarian workforce is sufficient to meet the critical responsibilities it carries out on a routine basis, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FSIS to periodically assess whether its level of inspection resources dedicated to food safety and humane slaughter activities is sufficient.
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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to help ensure the federal veterinarian workforce is sufficient to meet the critical responsibilities it carries out on a routine basis, the Secretary of Agriculture should conduct a departmentwide assessment of USDA's veterinarian workforce--based, for example, on workforce assessments by its component agencies--to identify current and future workforce needs (including training and employee development) and departmentwide solutions to problems shared by its agencies. When the Secretary completes the assessment, the results should be forwarded to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to help ensure the federal veterinarian workforce is sufficient to meet the critical responsibilities it carries out on a routine basis, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the department's component agencies that employ veterinarians to conduct regular workforce assessments and that the Secretary then conduct a departmentwide assessment of HHS's veterinarian workforce to identify current and future workforce needs (including training and employee development) and solutions to problems shared by its agencies. When the Secretary completes the assessment, the results should be forwarded to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to help ensure the federal veterinarian workforce is sufficient to meet the critical responsibilities it carries out on a routine basis, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management should determine, based on USDA's and HHS's departmentwide veterinarian workforce evaluations, whether a governmentwide effort is needed to address shortcomings in the sufficiency of the current and future veterinarian workforce.
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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to help the veterinarian workforce continue essential functions during a pandemic, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, and Health and Human Services should ensure that their component agencies that employ veterinarians complete pandemic plans that contain the necessary elements put forth in DHS's continuity of operations pandemic guidance, including periodically testing, training, and exercising plans.

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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to improve estimates of the veterinarian workforce needed to respond to a large-scale foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the Secretary of Agriculture should detail in a contingency response plan how a response using vaccines would be implemented.

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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to improve estimates of the veterinarian workforce needed to respond to a large-scale foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the Secretary of Homeland Security should coordinate an interagency effort to identify the data necessary to model the spread of disease in wildlife and how best to gather these data.

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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to respond to zoonotic outbreaks in the future while also effectively carrying out routine activities, the Secretaries of those departments most likely to be involved in response efforts--such as USDA, HHS, and Interior--should ensure that their agencies conduct postoutbreak assessments of workforce management.


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    Recommendation: To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out routine activities, prepare for a catastrophic event, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks and to improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to respond to zoonotic outbreaks in the future while also effectively carrying out routine activities, the Secretaries of those departments most likely to be involved in response efforts--such as USDA, HHS, and Interior--should ensure that their agencies in coordination with relevant federal, state, and local agencies, periodically review the postoutbreak assessments to identify common workforce challenges and strategies for addressing them.

    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-178
    The salvage of human life ought to be placed above barter and exchange ~ Louis Harris, 1918

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