Veterinarian Workforce:

Actions Are Needed to Ensure Sufficient Capacity for Protecting Public and Animal Health

GAO-09-178: Published: Feb 4, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 18, 2009.

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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

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, FSIS officials told us the Public Health Information Service was intended to have a function to help address this recommendation. In July 2013, we were informed that this function was not yet operational.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has taken a variety of steps to address this recommendation. According to an official from USDA's Office of Human Resources Management, in December 2012 the Secretary of Agriculture directed component agencies to create human capital and workforce plans that will include veterinarians. The effort is ongoing. USDA is also a member of the Federal Veterinarian Talent Management Advisory Council and administered the Council's web-based workforce assessment tool in June 2012. According to the council, almost one-third of the federal veterinarian workforce participated in the assessment, which provided a snapshot of employees' perceptions of whether, and to what extent, conditions characterizing successful organizations are present in their agencies. The purpose of the Council is to provide leadership in identifying and addressing the needs of the federal government's veterinarian community, and establish an outreach strategy to state and local governments, and other organizations to build collaborative relationships to support the greater veterinarian community, among other things. In addition, in 2010, USDA provided GAO with a draft white paper in which the department had examined the past 5 years of data for component agency veterinarians and identified workforce challenges. While the department's assessment is ongoing and the department has not provided GAO with a final draft of the white paper, these actions fulfill the intent of this recommendation.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, a department level human capital official confirmed that Health and Human Services has yet to conduct a departmentwide assessment of its veterinarian workforce to identify current and future workforce needs. The department continues to be a member of the Federal Veterinarian Talent Management Advisory Council and it was invited to participate in the Council's web-based workforce assessment tool in June 2012. The purpose of the Council is to provide leadership in identifying and addressing the needs of the federal government's veterinarian community, and establish an outreach strategy to state and local governments, and other organizations to build collaborative relationships to support the greater veterinarian community, among other things.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 25, 2009, the Director of PPM issued a memorandum to all federal agencies with veterinary medical officers (MO) asking them to provide leadership support for designing and implementing a governmentwide MO workforce strategy known as the MO Talent Management Advisory Council (TMAC). The MO TMAC held its first meeting in March 2010.A charter has been developed and the draft is being reviewed by the Governance and Planning Action Team. Agencies are in the process of supplying PPM with workforce data. PPM anticipates having aggregate data by January 2011.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense has yet to demonstrate that its pandemic plan for its Veterinary Command contains details for continuing essential veterinarian functions during a pandemic, such as identifying how functions will be carried out if absenteeism reaches 40 percent, the rate predicted at the height of the pandemic and used for planning purposes.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Health and Human Services has yet to demonstrate that the pandemic plans for each of its component agencies that employ veterinarians contain details for continuing essential veterinarian functions during a pandemic, such as identifying how functions will be carried out if absenteeism reaches 40 percent, the rate predicted at the height of the pandemic and used for planning purposes.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Agriculture has yet to demonstrate that the pandemic plans for each of its component agencies that employ veterinarians contain details for continuing essential veterinarian functions during a pandemic, such as identifying how functions will be carried out if absenteeism reaches 40 percent, the rate predicted at the height of the pandemic and used for planning purposes.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While the Department of Agriculture's Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Plan acknowledges the possible use of vaccines as one strategy to control an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, it does not detail any scenario for how a response using vaccines might be implemented.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, work is underway to identify the important issues of foot-and-mouth disease in wildlife and sources of data. Specifically, there is an interagency effort through the Foreign Animal Disease Threat (FADT) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). FADT members include DHS, USDA, NSF, EPA, HHS, DOI, DOD, DOS, and the Smithsonian Institution. The FADT Subcommittee is in the process of commissioning an Interagency Wildlife Task Force to examine the potential role of wildlife in foreign animal disease outbreaks. In July 2013, a Department of Homeland Security official from the Office of Health Affairs told us the FADT has completed its review and the report is in the final stages of being cleared for release by the White House. These steps fulfill the intent of this recommendation.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA is a member of the Federal Veterinarian Talent Management Advisory Council, which intends to assess workforce management as part of a postoutbreak response. The purpose of the Council is to provide leadership in identifying and addressing the needs of the federal government's veterinarian community, and establish an outreach strategy to state and local governments, and other organizations to build collaborative relationships to support the greater veterinarian community, among other things. As a first step, the Council looked at postoutbreak assessments of the most recent outbreak of a zoonotic disease in the United States (Exotic Newcastle disease in 2002) as well as assessments from an outbreak of a large-scale foreign animal disease in the United Kingdom (foot-and-mouth disease in 2001) and conducted scenario modeling of foot-and-mouth disease, to determine the veterinarian workforce needed to respond. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  11. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No information received.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  12. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No information received.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  13. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to the Department of the Interior, the department is a member of organizations that conduct and assess postoutbreak assessments but have not yet identified common workforce challenges and strategies for addressing them.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  14. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, a Department of the Interior official informed GAO that it has developed the "DOI One Health Group" composed of employees across DOI agencies with wildlife, human, and environmental health. The activities of the group are focused on identifying gaps in workforce capabilities and improving postoutbreak assessments of workforce management, among other things. In addition, Interior is a member of the Federal Veterinarian Talent Management Advisory Council, which intends to assess workforce management as part of a postoutbreak responses. The purpose of the Council is to provide leadership in identifying and addressing the needs of the federal government's veterinarian community, and establish an outreach strategy to state and local governments, and other organizations to build collaborative relationships to support the greater veterinarian community, among other things. As a first step, the Council looked at postoutbreak assessments of the most recent outbreak of a zoonotic disease in the United States (Exotic Newcastle disease in 2002) as well as assessments from an outbreak of a large-scale foreign animal disease in the United Kingdom (foot-and-mouth disease in 2001) and conducted scenario modeling of foot-and-mouth disease, to determine the veterinarian workforce needed to respond.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  15. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS is a member of the Federal Veterinarian Talent Management Advisory Council, which intends to assess workforce management as part of a postoutbreak response. The purpose of the Council is to provide leadership in identifying and addressing the needs of the federal government's veterinarian community, and establish an outreach strategy to state and local governments, and other organizations to build collaborative relationships to support the greater veterinarian community, among other things. As a first step, the Council looked at postoutbreak assessments of the most recent outbreak of a zoonotic disease in the United States (Exotic Newcastle disease in 2002) as well as assessments from an outbreak of a large-scale foreign animal disease in the United Kingdom (foot-and-mouth disease in 2001) and conducted scenario modeling of foot-and-mouth disease, to determine the veterinarian workforce needed to respond.

    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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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