May 2017 | Governor’s Budget Proposal Zeros Funding for New Bolton Center
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Governor’s Budget Proposal Zeros Funding for New Bolton Center

Suzanne Bush - May 2017

Penn graduatesNearly three quarters of the state’s veterinarians are Penn graduates, but the proposed elimination of funding is causing students to withdraw. Credit Penn Vet.

Pennsylvania’s fiscal house is not in order. It’s now estimated that the state will end the fiscal year with a $700 million deficit.

Of course, this is not the first year that the state has found itself in this position. With a legislature adamantly opposed to raising taxes, and a rainy-day fund that is chronically underfunded, Pennsylvania is losing ground. From rising pension costs to Medicaid, Pennsylvania has acquired a seemingly intractable assortment of costly programs. Rebuffed repeatedly when he proposed tax increases on various services and on the state’s fracking industry, Governor Wolf has proposed a budget seeking to address the revenue challenges dogging Pennsylvania. It includes modest spending increases, a tax on fracking, and expense reductions that shocked many in the state’s agricultural sector.

Currently the state provides $30 million annually to help fund the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. That funding is eliminated in Wolf’s proposed budget.

“Farm families are troubled by the proposed loss of state funding to Penn Vet (the New Bolton Center),” Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert said in a news conference. The University of Pennsylvania maintains the New Bolton Center, the large animal veterinary hospital near Kennett Square, as well as the Ryan Veterinary Hospital for small animals in Philadelphia.

Citing the critical role the New Bolton Center plays in the state’s agriculture industry, Ebert pointed out his group’s concern about the ability to identify and protect Pennsylvania farms from serious health threats such as avian influenza. Mark O’Neill, the Farm Bureau’s Director of Media and Strategic Communications said that farmers from all over the state had met with legislators recently to express their concerns about numerous issues affecting agriculture. High on their list of concerns was the funding cut to New Bolton Center.

Support for New Bolton and Outrage About Plan

Joan C. Hendricks, D.V.M. is the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She says she remains optimistic that the funding will not be cut. “One of the things we’re happiest about is both bipartisan support and outrage when the Department of Agriculture was presenting its budget,” she says. An army of students, farmers, lobbyists and veterinarians has been making the case for New Bolton Center in Harrisburg. As the state and the nation grapple with a looming shortage of large animal veterinarians, Hendricks likes to remind legislators that nearly three-quarters of the state’s veterinarians are Penn graduates.

She says that the state’s ambivalent support for New Bolton has affected enrollment, though. “We’re having trouble filling our student class. They’re withdrawing because they don’t see support from the state.” And given the economic importance of agriculture in Pennsylvania, how would a large animal veterinarian shortage impact the state’s farmers? “If you think it’s expensive to run a vet school, what do you think the cost of disease outbreaks would be?” Hendricks asks.

The Farm Bureau’s O’Neill says the consequences of a veterinarian shortage are already starting to appear. “You do have vets out there, but how far are they able to travel? You may have several vets in one county, and some day you may have one vet in three counties.” His organization has created an endowment scholarship program for large animal veterinarians. “Even with full funding to Penn Vet, and the endowment we’ve created there’s still a concern about the future of large animal vets,” he says.

New Bolton service veterinarians treat more than 38,000 animals on local farms. These are horses, pigs, cattle and goats. More than a million pigs on 547 Pennsylvania farms are on Penn Vet’s swine disease surveillance program. Twelve thousand cows in more than 25 herds in Pennsylvania were part of Penn Vet’s bovine field investigations in 2016.

From large farms to small backyard farms, New Bolton’s veterinarians have provided innovative care for large animals. Last year they did cataract surgery on a goat that was born with cataracts in both eyes. 

The Impact of Funding Loss

“We subsidize Pennsylvania students,” Hendricks says, “especially those who are going to a rural setting.” In addition, New Bolton is a key part of a public-private partnership that serves the whole state. The Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS) links the University of Pennsylvania, the Department of Agriculture and Penn State University in a network of labs that provide diagnostic services, pathology, toxicology and other services critical to the effective management of animal health.

“We run both the equine toxicology lab and the diagnostic lab,” she says. Both these initiatives have their own funding lines, but the funding is only partial. “We have developed programs for field service that are Pennsylvania-focused—in some cases we would not stop them on July 1 (if the budget is passed with the funding cut), but as we look to the future we would not recruit people to focus on Pennsylvania.”

Hendricks says that the state’s funding plan seems to ignore the impact Penn Vet has on Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry. “Everything we do that’s focused on Pennsylvania—how can we do it and why would we do it if we don’t have the funding for it?” She says that many people look at the amount of money the University of Pennsylvania has and wonder why New Bolton is worried. “There are different ways of thinking about the money that Penn has. Most of the money that Penn has is from people who donated to support athletics or Wharton.  You can’t repurpose their money to fund this.”

We Will Survive

Hendricks has said that the elimination of the state’s funding won’t be the end of the school. They have faced challenges before, and figured out ways to survive.

“We were cut more than a third in the economic downturn, and that never came back. At that time, we did a lot of cuts,” she says. “But we did not raise tuition to balance the budget. It’s really hard for students to go out and follow their dreams when their debt burden is so high.” She says that they’ve sought new research grants, gifts from donors. And they run lots of clinical trials that benefit the students and the animals that the school cares for.

She says that the charges for services from the hospital are at market levels, even as they develop new technologies that will dramatically change diagnostic procedures. “We are developing great new approaches that lead the region and sometimes the world. We have phenomenal ability to use the most advanced high tech approaches to do x-rays.” She says the robotic imaging they’ve developed is a paradigm changer.  “You get images of horses moving and bearing weight that we’ve never been able to get before. We launched it last April and we’re getting images that no one has ever had before.”

Hendricks is a proud graduate of Penn Vet, and she says the school’s commitment to excellence has made it a world leader. It is an asset that Pennsylvania should treasure. “I was thinking about it,” she says. “And we don’t use the Commonwealth support to fund services to individual animals; however we do obviously train students and graduate veterinarians at the highest level. That’s not a revenue generating thing we do.”

She says that everyone at the school is committed to excellence. “It is not possible for me to think of Penn Vet at a level where it’s just ‘okay.’ We aim to be the best. And to be at a place where you are ‘settling’ for just being one of the best, that’s not who we are.”

She reflects on the team spirit that pulled people together as they confronted the economic impact of the recession. “One of the things that’s heartening but heartbreaking too. We were brutally cut in the downturn. People were terrified at the time. People stayed with us and worked to help us get through it. People are very concerned, but they know this is a long process. It seems unimaginable that there wouldn’t be restoration so we can do the work we need to do.”