Chancellor's Fact Sheet Panhandle Research and Extension Center Diagnostic Lab - FY 2002 & 2003 Budget Reduction Process

MAY 20, 2002

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

1.   How did you select the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Panhandle lab) for this cut?

There were a number of considerations.

Following the Legislature's October 2001 special session to cut Nebraska's budget in the face of state revenue shortfalls, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) Vice Chancellor appointed an IANR Ad Hoc Budget Reduction Task Force to recommend ways the Institute might best meet its budget cutting responsibilities. Task Force representatives came from throughout the Institute, including the Panhandle. Two of the Task Force's recommendations were to eliminate programs available elsewhere within the university system and to make vertical reductions. The Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System, with its multiple diagnostic locations, surfaced as a budget-cutting option consistent with these recommendations.

The Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System currently has laboratories at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, and in Lincoln. The Panhandle and West Central labs provide a limited scope of services, with more sophisticated testing referred to the IANR full-service veterinary diagnostic center in Lincoln.

As part of the October 2001 special session budget cuts, when there was a total $1,510,520 cut in IANR funding, each UNL unit was asked to prepare a 5 percent budget-cutting scenario. When the Legislature called for an additional 1 percent cut this spring, and IANR was assessed $404,449 of UNL's share of that cut, IANR administrators went back to the 5 percent budget cutting scenarios prepared by all IANR units in October. Looking through those scenarios, it was painfully clear that the Institute could not continue to bleed all programs the same, which was the strategy in the fairly across-the-board cuts made following the October special session. To continue those across-the-board cuts would weaken IANR beyond its capacity to provide the quality programs asked of Institute faculty and staff, and would not be in the best interest of the Institute, the university, IANR constituents or Nebraska.

IANR administrators made the difficult decision to look at vertical cuts, as per that Ad Hoc Budget Reduction Task Force recommendation. The statewide diagnostic laboratory system is an area where we feel one lab can be eliminated and the system provide the laboratory testing and, to a certain extent, the extension education needs of the Panhandle. The tenure line position at the Panhandle lab is vacant and, unless a financial exigency is declared, the university will not make cuts in filled, tenured, faculty positions. Therefore, tenure-line faculty cuts must be made in vacant positions.

A number of the states surrounding Nebraska has only one statewide veterinary diagnostic lab. The Panhandle lab was the last laboratory to join the statewide veterinary diagnostic laboratory system. In 1978, laboratory space was retrofitted from the former Panhandle Research and Extension Center headquarters and remodeled in the late 1980s. While that late '80s remodeling gives the Panhandle facilities a more attractive appearance than the North Platte laboratory, the basic plant at North Platte is better.

2.   There are two satellite labs in the system, and some people ask why close the one at the Panhandle Center. How do facilities at the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Panhandle lab) and the West Central Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (North Platte lab) compare?

The facilities at the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Panhandle lab) occupy the west end of the Harris Building at Mitchell, Nebraska. These facilities were remodeled during the late 1980s and are more attractive in appearance than those at the West Central Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in North Platte, which has not had any significant facelift since the 1970s. However, the facility at North Platte has a well-designed necropsy room with a large walk-in cooler/refrigerator for animal carcasses to be held, prior to and after necropsy. It has an overhead rail that can be used to unload large carcasses from trucks and bring them into the necropsy room and/or place them in the cooler. The rail also is used by the rendering service, to move carcasses onto their trucks.

The Panhandle lab does not have adequate necropsy facilities, primarily because it does not have a good rail system and walk-in cooler set-up. Unfortunately, funds were not adequate to properly upgrade this area when the rest of the lab was renovated in the 1980s.

The labs at North Platte are larger than those at the Panhandle, and there is a second level in the North Platte lab building that is vacant and available for future use if needed. There are more and better offices and a larger reception area at North Platte. The North Platte lab also has a much better incinerator than does the Panhandle lab.

If we planned to maintain the Panhandle lab, the necropsy room should be upgraded with an overhead rail system and adequate walk-in cooler. A new incinerator probably also would be needed in the near future. Both upgrades would require significant investments to meet minimal needs and standards. Maintaining and upgrading laboratory equipment and computer capabilities are also significant on-going expenses.

3.   Some other states only have one statewide veterinary diagnostic laboratory. What about the states around or near Nebraska?

The majority of the states surrounding Nebraska has only one such laboratory. Kansas, Wyoming, Iowa, South and North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Minnesota all have only one veterinary diagnostic laboratory, although South Dakota is said to be considering adding another lab. With the exception of Iowa, the laboratories in all these states are located in the eastern portion of each of these states.

Colorado has a central full-service lab at the university in Fort Collins, and branch laboratories in southeastern Colorado and on the western slope of the Rockies. Missouri has a full-service diagnostic laboratory at the university in Columbia. Additionally, the Missouri Department of Agriculture maintains two minor diagnostic facilities in the northwestern and southwestern regions of the state.

4.   Some people say the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (Panhandle lab) is the most productive of the two satellite labs, conducting about 16,000 plus lab tests annually. How does productivity compare?

Terminology is important in understanding productivity when considering this question (4) and the following question (5).

  A "case" represents a single disease diagnostic problem or question. It may consist of a single serum sample on which we do one test, or it could be 3 animals (live or dead) from which we collect 30 samples and do multiple tests on each sample.

A "sample or specimen" is a separate specimen; e.g. a blood sample, a tissue sample, a feed sample, etc. We often do multiple tests on a single sample, e.g. pathology/histology, bacteriology, virology and toxicology examinations.

A "laboratory exam or test" is a distinct laboratory procedure that is conducted on a specimen, e.g. culturing a tissue sample for bacteria is one test, culturing the same specimen for a virus is another test, etc. In this example, the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (Panhandle lab) would do the bacteriology test at their site and would send the sample to Lincoln for the virology test.

While the Panhandle lab has been the most productive of the two satellite labs in the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System in recent years, the productivity difference narrowed considerably in the past year. The Panhandle lab's productivity advantage was primarily attributable to two factors, both of which have changed.

First, the West Central Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in North Platte essentially went about two years without a full-time status for the faculty veterinarian. The veterinary faculty position at the North Platte lab was vacant for an extended period in 1999-2000 following the retirement of the previous incumbent. Prior to retirement, this individual was absent on sick leave for an extended time, followed by a recovery period, thus disrupting the normal services of this laboratory for a considerable period. Since the veterinarian position for the North Platte lab was filled in mid-2000, the caseload has steadily increased.

Second, the Panhandle lab had an extraordinarily high performer in its veterinarian faculty position who attracted a large number of cases to this laboratory specifically. This individual resigned from that position in August 2001.

Some people say the Panhandle lab conducted 16,000 plus tests annually. These figures are incorrect.

Records show that 10,050 tests were conducted by the Panhandle lab in 2001. The Panhandle lab also sent samples from its cases to Lincoln, where an additional 6,402 tests were conducted. A total of 16,542 tests were conducted on Panhandle lab cases, but 6,402 of those tests were done in Lincoln.

5.   How does the growth in the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory's (Panhandle lab) workload compare to the other labs in the Nebraska statewide diagnostic system?

The Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory's (Panhandle lab's) workload growth parallels the Veterinary Diagnostic Center in Lincoln and the Nebraska Vet Diagnostic Lab System overall.

Comparing the number of tests conducted in 1999 and 2001 at each laboratory shows a 27 percent increase at the Panhandle lab, a 28 percent increase at the Lincoln lab, and a 28 percent increase throughout the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System (year 2001 vs year 1999). The West Central Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (North Platte lab) showed a 2.5 percent increase when comparing 1999 and 2001, but because of the extenuating circumstances there, as noted earlier in question (4), it's important to note that the North Platte lab showed a 38 percent increase in number of tests conducted between 2000 and 2001, after the new faculty veterinarian came on board.

The number of cases received at each lab for the January-April period of 2002 are as follows:

Panhandle lab
Lincoln Lab 5,252
North Platte Lab 352

The numbers of tests conducted at each lab for the January-April period of 2002 are:

Panhandle lab
Lincoln Lab 85,163
North Platte Lab 2,234

6.   Some people seem to feel western Nebraska was targeted in addressing the FY 2002-03 Legislative budget cuts. Did that occur?

The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the university are committed to all of Nebraska, and no part of the state was targeted in these cuts. Whenever and wherever cuts occur, however, someone is affected. That was true in the round of cuts following the Legislature's October 2001 special session, when IANR's cuts included eliminating state funding for the Farm Business Association, and finalizing the closeout of the swine program at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, eliminating one filled staff position. IANR can argue that any cut in the Institute's budget is a cut that affects rural Nebraska because the work the Institute does in teaching, research, and extension education is so intertwined to meet the needs of the state.

By their very nature, vertical cuts take a large budgetary component out of a system. In this case it is our Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System, and for reasons stated earlier, the recommended cut is the Panhandle lab.

Following the Legislature's October 2001 special session:
  *IANR made 77.9 percent of its required budget cuts on campus in Lincoln, with
*22.1 percent of its budget cuts made outside of Lincoln.

For the required cuts made following the Legislature's 2002 regular session,
  *47.2 percent of the Institute's cuts were made on campus in Lincoln, and
*52.8 percent were made outside of Lincoln, because of the vertical cut at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

The combined fiscal year 2003 cuts were made this way:
  *71.4 percent came from budgets on campus in Lincoln;
*28.6 percent came from budgets outside of Lincoln.

The Institute's budget distribution is:
  *74.8 percent on campus in Lincoln and
*25.2 percent outside of Lincoln.

With the vertical cut at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, and the nature of vertical cuts, which take a large budgetary component from a system, the relationships of the combined fiscal year 2003 cuts and the distribution of IANR's budget between on campus in Lincoln and outside of Lincoln were within a little over 3 percent of each other.

The Panhandle Research and Extension Center budget is roughly 4.9 percent of the total IANR Fiscal Year 2002 state-aided, non-revolving budget. The Panhandle Research and Extension Center's total reductions for Fiscal Year 2003 amount to 14.6 percent of IANR's total reductions ­ $279,537 of $1,914,969.

During the first round of permanent reductions that occurred following the Legislature's October 2001 special session, the Panhandle Research and Extension Center's budget was cut 1.7 percent of its total ­ $66,124 of $3,811,254. The PHREC diagnostic lab reduction is an additional 5.6 percent of the Center's total budget ­ $213,413 of $3,811,254, which brings the total PHREC budget reduction for Fiscal Year 2003 to 7.3 percent, or $279,537.

Some people have said the Panhandle is taking 50 percent of IANR's overall Fiscal Year 2003 budget cut, confused, perhaps, by the fact that the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Lab accounts for $213,413 of the Institute's current $404,449 budget cut. This is not true when cuts from the October 2001 special session and 2002 regular legislative session are combined. In the latest round of cuts necessitated by the Legislature's additional 1 percent reduction in the university budget, the Panhandle lab cut, due to the nature of vertical cuts, does account for slightly over 50 percent of the $404,449 IANR must permanently cut from its budget. But in Fiscal Year 2003 the total cut to the Panhandle Research and Extension Center's budget is 7.3 percent of the Panhandle Center's total budget, and 14.6 percent of IANR's total reductions, not 50 percent.

Historically, this is not the first time closing the Panhandle lab has been recommended. During the budget cuts of the mid-1980s a similar recommendation was made, but there was more flexibility in the Institute's budget at that time, and other budget balancing options were implemented instead. Since the 1980s, IANR and UNL have gone though a number of state budget reductions and internal reallocations. The budget flexibility is gone, and IANR administrators now must make what they consider the ³least bad² of bad choices to try to minimize the impact budget cuts will have on IANR's constituents, the state, the university and the Institute itself. There are no good cuts on the IANR budget cutting list. Each one diminishes the work faculty and staff can do now and in the future for Nebraska. But the circumstances in which the Institute, the university and the state of Nebraska now find themselves necessitate making difficult choices that will do the least overall, long-term damage to the state, IANR and university programs.

In announcing other cuts at UNL, the Chancellor noted that while the Division of Continuing Studies must make significant cuts, every effort will be made to avoid adversely affecting the Scottsbluff Learning Center. That's part of UNL's very real commitment to western Nebraska.

7.   Since the veterinarian position being vacant played a role in closing the lab, did a university hiring freeze prevent the Panhandle Research and Extension Center from refilling the position?

As noted earlier, a number of considerations went into the recommendation to close this lab. It is true that unless a financial exigency is declared, the university will not make cuts in filled, tenured faculty positions, so when cuts are demanded, the university must look to vacant lines.

The belief that there was a hiring freeze in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is erroneous. The Institute never implemented a freeze. IANR administrators did listen carefully to the concerns Governor Johanns expressed in late July 2001 about the state's revenue shortfall, and when the governor encouraged state agencies and the university to hold the line on expenditures, the Institute was extremely cautious in releasing positions because of budget uncertainties that, today, we know were all too real. In the last year, IANR filled three faculty positions at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, one of them a newly created family life specialist position. Also filled were the MBA/community development specialist and the learning center coordinator positions.

8.   Some people say closing the Panhandle lab will push sample testing to other states. Will people now send samples to Laramie and Fort Collins?

Producers and veterinarians always have had the option of sending their cases/specimens to any laboratory they prefer. Certainly producers and veterinarians can mail packages to either Wyoming or Colorado, as well as to Lincoln, but there is no time or expense advantage in doing so. The advantage of sending samples to Lincoln is it provides the ability to monitor livestock disease trends in Nebraska, with follow-up disease investigations as needed, which isn't available from out-of-state laboratories.

Multiple tests usually are conducted on each case sent to a diagnostic laboratory. Both the Panhandle lab and the North Platte lab often do some of the tests and then forward specimens to the Veterinary Diagnostic Center in Lincoln for additional tests as needed to complete the case work-up. Records show this is the situation on approximately 50 percent of the cases received by both the Panhandle lab and the North Platte lab. The branch laboratories depend on the Lincoln lab for a major portion of the testing required on the cases they receive. This requires a one-day delay for shipment of the specimens from the branch lab to Lincoln. Some producers and veterinarians in the Panhandle always have sent their cases/specimens to Lincoln rather than to the branch laboratory, bypassing the one-day delay of having the Panhandle lab send cases/specimens on to Lincoln for testing, and bypassing the repackaging/reshipment expense.

While the university hopes closing the Panhandle lab does not result in sending more specimens out of state than now occurs, the crucial issue is that animal owners get the diagnostic services they need.

9.   How will Cooperative Extension provide animal health education in the future?

We will continue to provide animal health educational programs to the Panhandle. All current extension veterinarians have statewide responsibilities identified in their job description. These positions are located in Lincoln, Clay Center, and North Platte. Steve Ensley, the veterinarian located at the West Central Research and Extension Center (WCREC) in North Platte, has a job description that specifically references coordinating with the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC) on educational programs. Arden Wohlers, a local practicing veterinarian who is on contract with the University, will continue his part-time educational role at the Panhandle Center through October 15, 2002. During this period, he will be asked to lay the foundation for a Panhandle Veterinary Extension Advisory Committee (see below) and implement a Panhandle veterinary extension program utilizing the extension veterinarians located in Lincoln, North Platte and Clay Center. Modern technologies, including the Internet, teleconferencing, and other distance education technologies, will also be utilized to provide on-going interactions with the Panhandle region. Opportunities also will be explored for some multi-state activities with Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming.

We propose forming a Panhandle Advisory Committee to include representatives from the veterinary and livestock communities. The major purpose of this committee will be to identify priority educational programs that are needed. PHREC Director Chuck Hibberd and Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department Head Jack Schmitz will meet with the advisory committee 3-4 times per year to discuss regional veterinary educational needs. Dr. Hibberd and Dr. Schmitz then will meet with appropriate PHREC extension specialists and educators for planning purposes. Dr. Schmitz will provide leadership within the Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences department to develop extension teaching programs, such as in-depth workshops, clinics, or other educational curricula to address Panhandle needs, utilizing expertise in Lincoln, Clay Center, and North Platte. Dr. Schmitz also will search for expertise, as needed, from outside the state. Extension educators in the region can provide local organizational support. Dr. Hibberd will provide input into the annual evaluation of the extension veterinarians who are providing priority educational programs in the Panhandle.

The conference rooms in the Veterinary Basic Science building in Lincoln and the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center in Clay Center are equipped with Polycoms. Similarly, the WCREC and PHREC are equipped with Polycoms in addition to satellite conferencing capabilities. These technologies provide the capability for face-to-face conversations as needed among multiple sites at the same time.

Regarding the diagnostic support, the veterinary diagnostic center in Lincoln can provide monthly or quarterly reports to Panhandle veterinarians, summarizing the cases received in Lincoln from the Panhandle region. One of the faculty in Lincoln can review these cases and determine if there are any noteworthy trends that merit some type of special attention, and can initiate extension or other programs as appropriate. The university will not be able to provide the same ready access to an extension veterinarian for farm/ranch visits that was possible in the past, but, in cases of special interest/concern/need, someone from Lincoln, Clay Center, or North Platte can be scheduled to do a field investigation trip. Again, Dr. Hibberd would provide appropriate feedback to Dr. Schmitz regarding diagnostic services available to the Panhandle.

10.   What percent of the samples collected primarily in Lincoln are sent to other labs?

During calendar year 2001, the Lincoln laboratory referred specimens to other laboratories for testing on 1.9 percent of the cases it received (269 of 14,463 Lincoln cases). Outside laboratories conducted a total of 1,199 tests on specimens from these cases. This equates to 0.37 percent of the 326,288 tests conducted by the Lincoln lab on specimens from cases it received.

11.   Can Lincoln absorb the additional work with existing staff to do the work on the samples that were done in Scottsbluff previously?

It will be necessary to hire additional technical staff in the Lincoln laboratory to accommodate the expected additional tests on samples sent from the Panhandle region. While the exact amount of additional staffing needed is not known at this time, there is significant economy of scale in large laboratory operations, and it is expected that the Lincoln lab can accomplish the testing with fewer staff members than currently employed at the Panhandle lab. We estimate that this may equate to 0.5 FTE of technician salary plus some part-time student help, perhaps one or two students working 10-15 hours per week. We expect that we can hire additional laboratory staff (students) during the peak seasons of late winter and spring, without maintaining full-time permanent staffing. The fee income to the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System (Panhandle, North Platte, and Lincoln) is placed into a single revolving account, and funds from this account provide partial support for the operation of all three laboratories. Currently, this account pays 25 percent of the salary for one laboratory technician at the Panhandle lab. With the Panhandle lab closing, the equivalent of these wages would be available to contribute toward the additional staffing needed in Lincoln. The goal will be to obtain the remaining funding for additional staff from fee income.

12.   Are there services that can't be provided in the Panhandle if the lab isn't there?

We don't know of any services that are vital and cannot be obtained elsewhere in the absence of the UNL lab. Concerns were raised about the zoo in Scottsbluff. We believe the zoo can contract with a local veterinarian to provide the clinical services it needs. Samples can be sent to Lincoln for testing from the zoo by this veterinarian. We understand that other small zoos do this and, thereby, are able to meet accreditation standards.

13.   With the lab closing, how will public health and safety issues be addressed?

We recognize the importance of the recent diagnosis of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer in the Panhandle region. We understand the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission would like access to the facility as a work site where they can extract brain specimens from deer heads, and they do not require other laboratory capabilities at this site. While the Panhandle lab will be closed, we will consider the possibility of renting the lab space to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for their staff to use in collecting the brain samples. These specimens will be placed in formalin and forwarded to the Veterinary Diagnostic Center in Lincoln which is certified to do the actual CWD tests.

The Lincoln lab is now setting up to do Chronic Wasting Disease lab/diagnostic tests, and is one of only about six labs in the country certified to do so. This test requires special equipment that is very expensive and not practical in a satellite lab. Additionally, a qualified veterinary pathologist, not available in Scottsbluff, is needed to read the slides. (Note: An accredited pathologist is required to read the test. The former veterinarian at the Panhandle lab was not a certified pathology specialist and therefore did not meet the criteria to read this test.)

Other parts of Nebraska with heavy livestock populations - notably the northeast - do not have diagnostic laboratories in their immediate area, and a majority of them use the Lincoln lab. A few use the diagnostic laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, because of proximity. Nebraska has several other areas of livestock concentration that do not have close physical proximity to diagnostic laboratories for disease surveillance purposes. However, private veterinary practitioners and state veterinarians are available to raise alerts about suspicious animal disease or public health cases. National law requires that a federal (USDA) veterinarian be notified immediately if a foreign animal disease is suspected, and they are required to do an immediate investigation. Additionally, Dr. Steve Ensley at North Platte and other veterinary faculty members from Lincoln or Clay Center will be called for any emergency situations. If veterinarians and animal owners continue to send specimens to the diagnostic laboratories in Lincoln or North Platte, we will have a system for continually monitoring animal disease and potential public health situations in the region.

14.   How has the Panhandle lab been used in the past regarding CWD? The Panhandle lab was used as a work site where the Game and Parks Commission personnel extracted the brain specimen from deer heads. The Panhandle lab personnel also assisted with this activity last fall when approximately 800 deer were processed. In some cases, entire deer were transported to the lab, but in the majority of cases only the heads were delivered there. The Game and Parks Commission sent the brain specimens to Colorado and/or Wyoming for testing. We expect them to send the brain samples to Lincoln for testing this fall.

15.   Is there CWD research occurring at UNL?

We are not doing any research on CWD at UNL; however, we are getting set up to do diagnostic testing in Lincoln. The Game and Parks Commission is planning to test 3,000 deer this fall; 1,000 plus in the Panhandle; 1,000 minus each in central and eastern Nebraska. The Commission is planning to use the North Platte and Lincoln diagnostic labs as work sites for extracting brain specimens from heads, as well as hoping to use the Panhandle lab. We are open to discussing feasible arrangements to allow their use of the latter.

16.   Is extension addressing CWD?

Last summer Dr. Dave Smith, extension dairy/beef veterinarian, had a program/workshop on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), sometimes referred to as mad cow disease, and invited cattlemen, feed manufacturers, veterinarians, etc. CWD was included in the workshop. Dr. Smith and Dr. Steve Ensley at North Platte plan to continue this extension education program.

17.   Can the lab be kept open with grants, increased fees?

Currently there are no known Homeland Security competitive funding programs in the area of veterinary diagnostics that would be feasible for supporting this laboratory operation, as suggested by some people. We have no knowledge of any pending that might be available in the future to fund this program.

Increased lab fees could not pay for the operation of the Panhandle lab. We probably would have to triple the fee schedule, which would not be practical. Our lab fees are already higher than the adjacent states and the former Panhandle lab veterinary diagnostician repeatedly stated that the fees were too high already. Veterinarians will surely send specimens elsewhere if we raise fees this drastically.

IANR and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will discuss Game and Parks expressed willingness to provide some financial support to allow the continuance of the Panhandle lab as a site for collecting and processing samples for Chronic Wasting Disease. However, it is not reasonable that they would be able to provide enough funding to support a public service veterinary diagnostic laboratory program.