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Veterinarian-turned-lawmaker takes action, saying vet shortage in Colorado hurts pets and people

Veterinarian and state lawmaker introduces bills to clear the way for more telehealth animal care
Veterinarian and state lawmaker introduces bills to clear the way for more telehealth animal care 03:01

A veterinarian-turned-state lawmaker is introducing a package of bills aimed at addressing an increasingly dire shortage of veterinarians in Colorado.

There are about 3,800 vets in the state for 2.5 million dogs and cats, and that doesn't include horses and farm animals. A recent survey of Colorado veterinarians by Colorado State University's Animal-Human Policy Center found that 70% are turning away animals every week because their practices are so overloaded. Now, state Rep. Karen McCormick, whose district includes Boulder County, is taking action.

She says when she became a veterinarian 40 years ago, pet parents had their pick of practitioners. Not anymore, she says: "The profession as a whole has seen this coming on."

Former veterinarian and Colorado State Rep. Karen McCormick CBS

For years, demand for veterinary care has been expanding as the supply of vets is shrinking. But it's now reached a breaking point and McCormick says animals aren't the only ones to suffer.

"We are part of the firewall that protects public health and safety in our country."

That firewall, she says, is weakening as vets -- especially those who care for large farm animals in rural Colorado -- are stretched thin. Not only are more vets retiring than graduating, but 80% of those who do graduate, McCormick says, care for companion animals only.

One of her bills would clear the way for more telehealth care in veterinary medicine by laying out clear guidelines for when and how it can be done. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees veterinary medicine and requires vets to see animals at least once in person before they care for them virtually. They are also limited in what they can prescribe during a virtual visit.

McCormick also plans to introduce a bill to expand the role of vet techs.

"We are losing veterinary technicians in our field at the average of seven years in the field because they're not utilized to the full extent of their training and education (and) they're not being paid enough."

Dr. Nancy Bureau at Left Hand Animal Hospital in Niwot says the bills are long overdue and will help improve access and reduce costs.

Dr. Nancy Bureau, with Left Hand Animal Hospital in Niwot. CBS

"Our veterinary technician teams are amazingly talented people," Bureau said. "If they can be encouraged to use those skills and encouraged to have more advancements for their career, this is a win-win all around. It's a win for the animals, it's a win for the pet parents, it's a win for those technicians and it's going to be a win for veterinary medicine."

The federal government has offered student loan forgiveness to vets willing to practice in rural areas, but many don't stay which is why McCormick is also introducing a bill that would provide income tax credits to those who do stay.

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