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Photography by Lokibaho/Getty Images

As a second-generation veterinarian, Michael Blackwell, director of the Program for Pet Health Equity in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Social Work, has witnessed the American public’s behavior toward companion animals shift to treating them not just as pets but as family members.

With two-thirds of American households having nonhuman family members, the need for affordable veterinary care is more important than ever. With the 2008 recession, Blackwell saw firsthand a surge of families struggling to pay for services, specifically veterinary care, and he recognized the need to improve access to this care. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased the number of families needing support.

“We have tens of millions of individuals called pets embedded in communities across the country, and they don’t have adequate access to care,” Blackwell stated. “That threatens not only the family’s health but the community’s health and the nation’s well-being.”

In 2017, Blackwell began leading an interdisciplinary team at UT composed of members from the College of Social Work, the Haslam College of Business, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Department of Public Health in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences to establish the program, which works to connect underserved individuals with veterinary service providers. In 2018 it received $2.8 million from Maddie’s Fund to research and develop AlignCare.

“We’re putting in place a system that will be in part a safety net but also a structured approach so we can more efficiently and effectively reach underserved families,” Blackwell said.

As the program’s director, Blackwell works with consultants and volunteers across the country to coordinate and reiterate its vision.

“My vision is one day, any family that needs to see a doctor, whether it’s the human or the nonhuman member, will be able to see a doctor and get needed care,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell integrates UT graduate students in business, public health, and social work into the program, providing eye-opening exposure to the differences between veterinary medicine and the health care industry and to the economic impacts of delivering health care.

In regard to his students, Blackwell said, “They’ve come to appreciate how connected things are in this world. Students are regularly appreciating the human–animal bond, and the organizations providing family support services need to change their programs to see the holistic family.”

Currently the program is operating in four cities—Knoxville; Asheville, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; and Long Island, New York. These cities had interested partners who were on board and ready to start building this program within the communities.

Recently UT received $600,000 from the Dave & Cheryl Duffield Foundation to expand these services to Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. Other U.S. communities will be added as funding permits.

Blackwell attributes much of the program’s success to its past and current team members as well as the many partners, consultants, and volunteers who have stepped up.

“The people who need assistance in our country are actually our neighbors—and they are primarily the working poor, who, ironically, work in service industries,” Blackwell said. “As a nation we are fortunate we still have so many compassionate people in our midst.”

Blackwell is the 2020 recipient of the Avanzino Leadership Award, recognizing his outstanding leadership and purposeful dedication to the human–animal bond.

To learn more about the Program for Pet Health Equity, visit


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