Advocacy in action
An advocacy success story – well, sort of

Advocacy efforts are usually a marathon rather than a sprint and often take a village. If you are a person who craves instant gratification, advocacy work might not be for you, particularly if Congress is involved. But, when your efforts are successful and you can actually effect a change that benefits your constituents, it reminds you why it’s worth making the effort. The animal-agriculture industry recently achieved one of those milestones involving the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), and so I thought I would describe that road to success.

History of the NAHLN

The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the network in 2002 to coordinate federal laboratory capacity with the extensive infrastructure (facilities, professional expertise, and support) of state-supported laboratories. Twelve state or university diagnostic laboratory facilities received cooperative agreements in May 2002 for a 2-year period to develop capacity and surveillance programs for eight high-priority foreign-animal diseases.

The NAHLN has grown to include approximately 60 laboratories in the United States. Surge capacity (increased sustained testing in case of a disease outbreak) in the network has been built to a level that will help offset disease-related economic losses to industry, states, and the federal government through rapid diagnostic deployment and efficient and secure communication.

The advocacy effort

Although significant enhancements have been made, limited funding has not allowed expansion of the NAHLN to achieve a level projected to more fully diminish losses from disease outbreaks. As a matter of fact, in early 2011, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee proposed eliminating $4.4 million – representing all of NAHLN’s funding – from the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative for fiscal year 2012. It became evident that Congress really didn’t understand what the NAHLN was and its importance to the nation’s veterinarians and livestock producers. It was this action that led to a concentrated advocacy effort to try to get the funding restored.

This effort involved multiple stakeholders, including food-animal veterinary groups, American Veterinary Medical Association, producer organizations, and veterinary laboratory directors. The American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) hired a Washington, DC, lobbying firm to coordinate efforts to educate Congress about the value of the NAHLN in an effort to restore funding for the network. Stakeholder groups put on a full court press to educate Congress, but time was short as the 2012 budget process was moving forward. The coalition used phone calls, e-mails, personal contacts, and visits to congressional offices to raise awareness of the issue. Fortunately, the effort was successful in convincing freshman Colorado congressman Corey Gardner to introduce an amendment to restore the funding. The House of Representatives unanimously passed the amendment in June 2011, thus restoring the NAHLN funding.

While getting the funding restored was the short-term goal of the initial advocacy efforts, the long-term objective is to increase the annual appropriation to adequately fund the network activities. The NAHLN Coordinating Council has been working to restructure the network and prioritize the actions necessary to build and support a robust laboratory system. According to the council’s estimates, an annual budget of at least $30 million is needed to support a fully functional laboratory infrastructure and to continue enhancements for network capacity and information technology capabilities. Further, since the annual appropriations process creates challenges for laboratories in sustaining the federal investment into NAHLN infrastructure capacity and capability, a more stable funding mechanism on a multi-year basis is needed.

So, upon securing the 2012 funding, the advocacy efforts turned to raising the awareness of the NAHLN stakeholders and congressional representatives regarding the increased budgetary needs and desire for a mandatory line item to support ongoing funding. Swine veterinarians joined with pork producers to educate legislators on the importance of the laboratory system to pork production and animal agriculture in general. Ultimately, the advocacy efforts were successful in getting an authorization for $15 million in the 2014 Farm Bill. This was a huge step toward moving the NAHLN funding effort forward. While the authorization didn’t bring with it any actual dollars, it was a statement of recognition from Congress acknowledging the importance of the laboratory system.

Since 2014, the advocacy efforts have targeted convincing Congress to appropriate funds to support the Farm Bill authorization without jeopardizing funding in existing critical programs. That persistence has finally paid off with the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2016 Federal Budget, which included an appropriation of $5 million for the NAHLN specifically! And this is “new money” and does not require a budgetary offset in some other program. This is an incredible accomplishment given the current economic climate. When combined with the $7 million earmarked for NAHLN in the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service budget and the approximately $3 million annual allotment from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NAHLN will have a 2016 budget of $15 million – the largest single-year budget the network has ever had.

While this effort is certainly an incredible success, it’s not the end of the road. This achievement is good for only 1 year. The NAHLN needs recognition in the mandatory annual budget to support a fully functional and robust laboratory system. A 1-year allocation will not allow the NAHLN to hire additional personnel or enter into long-term contractual agreements necessary to enhance and maintain this vital network. Also, $15 million is still not adequate funding to support the laboratory network and functionality needed to build the capacity necessary to respond to an animal-health emergency in the livestock sector.

So the advocacy efforts will continue with the goal of securing adequate annual funding and a budgetary structure that ensures a national laboratory network that can support the needs of modern animal agriculture. This effort could use your support. The AAVLD has financially supported the costs associated with lobbying efforts in Washington since 2011 at a significant drain on their resources. To help offset some of this cost, AAVLD has created “Friends of the Labs” to target donations in support of this effort. If you would like to make a donation you can do so online at friends-of-the-labs.

-- Harry Snelson, DVM Director of Communications