Food inspections, medical research, and disease tracking are considered “non-essential” as the U.S. government shutdown continues.
It’s Oct. 4, 2013, and the U.S. has been without a fully funded government for four days.
With the government in hibernation, major parts of the federal system deemed non-essential are closed, putting thousands of federal employees on furlough until elected officials pass a budget. This includes food inspectors, disease monitoring agents, and the scientists staffing clinical trials of children’s cancer treatments.
The largest cuts affect NASA; the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Commerce, and Education; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the Smithsonian. They are experiencing staff losses of more than 80 percent.
This is all happening just as Americans are beginning to enroll in the new healthcare exchanges made possible by the Affordable Care Act and just before the annual flu season, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will not be able to track and monitor during the shutdown.
The partial government shutdown is the result of hard bargaining tactics used by Republican lawmakers in an attempt to de-fund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, the largest healthcare initiative in the nation’s history. It was passed into law in 2009 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A recent poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans oppose the use of a government shutdown, regardless of their personal beliefs about Obamacare. The nation is split equally about the implementation of the law, in particular the requirement that all U.S. citizens obtain health insurance.
“Americans are certainly not in love with Obamacare, but they reject decisively the claim by Congressional Republicans that it is so bad that it’s worth closing down the government to stop it,” Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the institute, said in a statement.
The same poll found that voters trust Pres. Barack Obama more than the Republicans in Congress to handle healthcare, 47 percent to 38 percent.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the medical research arm of the government and the largest biomedical research funding institute on the planet. There, scientists research diseases to create better treatments and possibly cures.
Through their 27 institutes and centers, such as the National Cancer Institute, NIH researchers study both physical and mental illnesses, and also provide large amounts of research funding to other organizations. The shutdown means the NIH has had to halt recruiting for drug trials, though those currently enrolled in studies are still receiving treatments.
The Washington Post reported that of the 200 patients that the NIH recruits per week for new experimental therapies, an average of 30 of them are children, 10 of whom have cancer.
One NIH study published prior to the shutdown found that 14 percent of infants share their bed with a parent or other child. It highlighted how many parents are still putting their youngest children at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lost half of its budget and staff the day after open enrollment for insurance exchanges under Obamacare began.
The HHS runs the federal health insurance exchanges, and also includes the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the CDC.
Besides researching and preventing the spread of deadly viruses and bacteria, the CDC is responsible for overseeing the 30 or so critical foodborne illnesses that can occur at anytime, and responding before they create an outbreak. The eight people responsible for that are included in the furlough, NPR reported.
Calling the shutdown “truly reckless,” Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said: “If an outbreak does occur during this government shutdown, it’s likely it’s going to go on longer and affect more people.”
Just as the U.S. is about enter the flu season, the CDC says it won’t be able to support the seasonal influenza program, including supplying vaccinations and tracking its severity. Last year’s flu season was one of the most intense on record, causing 164 pediatric deaths.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” during the shutdown, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
The shutdown means that the FDA won’t be inspecting and monitoring imports from countries with lax food safety standards.
And while our food isn’t as safe as it should be, the members of Congress are still being paid their full wages and have unfettered access to government-funded health programs.