WASHINGTON — The partial shutdown of the federal government doesn’t appear to have had an immediate effect on most healthcare-related agencies, but observers expressed concern over what the shutdown might mean for the long term.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), obviously the largest healthcare-related agency, has been largely unaffected by the shutdown, which began at 12:01 a.m. December 22, since most of the department is already funded through fiscal year 2019. However, the FDA is affected because its appropriations fall under a different authorization bill than the rest of HHS, so the agency had to furlough 7,053 staff members; the remaining 10,344 staff members were retained, either because they were performing functions critical to public health and safety, such as protecting ongoing experiments, or because their programs — such as tobacco regulation or new drug development — are funded by user fees.
The Alliance for a Stronger FDA — a group of patient organizations, trade associations, and pharmaceutical and biomedical companies that support adequate funding for the agency — expressed some concerns about the shutdown. “The FDA regulates products that make up 20% of consumer spending,” the organization said in a statement. “The agency’s responsibilities cannot be fully met when 7,000 employees are furloughed. Further, when the FDA is not fulfilling its critical public health responsibilities, there is no backstop to the agency’s work.”
However, “having said that, we have confidence that [FDA Commissioner] Dr. [Scott] Gottlieb and FDA leadership have ensured the emergency and critical public health and safety functions will be covered during a shutdown,” the statement continued. “Consumers should not panic — the FDA is still on the job. The immediate problem, quite a serious one, is the slowing of work on longer-term priorities and items that aren’t absolutely essential. Managing only those items that could turn into an immediate crisis is no way to run an agency that is critical to public health.”
The shutdown also hits the Indian Health Service (IHS), although direct patient care is not affected, HHS explained in its FY 2019 Contingency Staffing Plan, which was issued before the shutdown actually began. In the event of a shutdown, “IHS would continue to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics,” the document noted. As for other IHS services, “many administrative activities are impacted due to the lapse in funding for the IHS,” a spokeswoman said in an email to MedPage Today.
Asked for examples of administrative services that IHS would continue to perform, the spokeswoman said, “The IHS can only perform administrative, oversight, and other functions that are necessary to meet the immediate needs of its patients, medical staff, and medical facilities.” Other media are reporting that some tribes will need to furlough staff and cut back services at their tribally run health clinics if the shutdown continues.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is largely unaffected by the shutdown except for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. There, Superfund Research Program staff are furloughed and oversight work dealing with about 50 grants is suspended, according to the staffing plan. An NIH spokeswoman confirmed in an email that no other NIH divisions have been affected.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta is another HHS division affected by the shutdown. Although the agency, which deals with environmental health threats and emergencies, will continue carrying out emergency-related functions, it cannot “support most environmental health professional training programs, continuous updating of health exposure assessments and recommendations, and technical assistance, analysis, and [provide] other support to state and local partners,” the staffing plan noted.