DENVER — At the Brekke Veterinary Clinic in Castle Pines, there’s a "Help Wanted" sign hanging in the window. Like a lot of veterinary offices across the state, the labor shortage has made it difficult to get qualified candidates to come in.
“It's a challenge. I saw it starting even pre COVID, where the demand of so many animals, so many clients and staffing shortage, people that are getting out of the field and not new ones coming in. So, it's been a struggle, and also finding good, qualified people for the best care possible,” said Dr. Jay Brekke.
Brekke been a veterinarian for more than a decade, and says he first started to notice the shortage in 2018 or 2019. He blames things like the cost of living, low pay, mental exhaustion and long hours for exacerbating the shortage.
Still, he considers himself and his clinic to be lucky.
“We've definitely seen and felt it, but I would say that not as bad as some of the emergency clinics, which I feel pretty bad for. They're probably struggling more than general practitioners,” Brekke said.
Last year, Colorado lawmakers renewed the Veterinary Practice Act to help. This year, legislators say there’s even more work to be done.
One idea is Senate Bill 23-044, which would renew the funding for the state’s veterinary education loan repayment program. It would also increase the amount or reimbursement veterinarians can receive and expand the program to offer the repayments to six people instead of four.
The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and support, with Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, Sen. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells and Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Boulder, as the prime sponsors.
“(It) increases the amount of funds that they could apply for from $70,000 to $90,000, and when you consider that the cost of a veterinary education can average from $100,000 to $300,000, that's a good amount of money that can help them repay that loan,” said McCormick.
McCormick is the only veterinarian in the state legislature and knows firsthand how bad the shortage of qualified help has gotten.
To qualify for that funding, there is a catch. The veterinarians have to work in a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) documented shortage area, which is mainly in rural parts of the state.
Shortage areas in Colorado include Baca, Bent, Kiowa, Prowers, Rio Grande, Mineral Saguache, Costilla, Conejos, Alamosa, Phillips, Sedgwick, Yuma, Logan, Montrose, Delta, Huerfano, Animas, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Montezuma, LaPlata and San Juan counties.
“It can help tremendously as a draw to those areas, and that's the whole point. We want to incentivize veterinarians to move into those areas. The fact that it's going to take them about four or five years to receive that full incentivize payment back, the hope is, as they practice in those areas, they will fall in love with what they're doing there and stay,” McCormick said.
Beyond that, McCormick is also considering ways to address the fact that the state is losing a lot of veterinary technicians. Her research shows these technicians are leaving the field after working an average of seven years. She blames it on an underutilization of their talents.
“Veterinarians aren't trained well enough to use their staff. And we're not paying them a sufficient livable wage to allow them to stay in the profession. We're losing them to human nursing fields,” McCormick said.
To keep them around, McCormick is considering proposing a bill to help build the career ladder of opportunities for these technicians to help them advance in their professions. She’s looking at a bill to loosen up some of the rules in the Veterinary Practice Act to give technicians the ability to do more and to increase efficiencies so that animals can be seen in a timely manner.
Other lawmakers are considering even more legislation to add to the purview of veterinary technicians and possibly create a new position that's somewhere between a technician and a veterinarian. However, not everyone seems to be onboard with that idea.
The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association announced on its website its opposition to the creation of a mid-level practitioner position and any education program that would educate or graduate someone to that position.
CVMA opposes the position because of federal and state laws, as well as concerns over liability insurance, among other things.
McCormick, meanwhile, admits there are federal laws that Congress would need to intervene on to truly make a difference in the profession. Still, she’s determined to try to find solutions to the labor shortage in the state.
“My goal is really, what can we do that's going to help the fastest? What can we do? Because we're feeling the pinch now,” she said.
The veterinary education loan repayment program bill passed its first committee test Thursday unanimously.