Weekly Topic: How does the government shutdown affect public health?
Some federal agency services with public health roles already inactive
As the government shutdown continues into its third week with no end in sight, there is growing concern over the dangers and risks of the shutdown to public health.
Many agencies have drastically cut back on services and employees. Already, the EPA has run out of funding and is only keeping 700 people active and unpaid while furloughing over 13,000. While the remaining workers can continue to monitor Superfund sites (polluted areas requiring long-term cleanup) and other activities where the "threat to life or property is imminent," other important health services have discontinued. For example, in North Carolina, the agency has stopped testing the Lower Cape Fear River for toxic chemicals. And the cleanup of the contaminated Housatonic River in Pittsfield has been put on hold.
The Indian Health Service, which provides health care to tribal communities, has run out of funding. Cash strapped in normal times, the shutdown could have “profound” affects on the health of these communities, according to Annie Belcourt, an American Indian associate professor of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences at the The University of Montana who used to be an IHS patient herself.
For other agencies, the funding will be running out soon. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps feed over 40 million Americans and will run out of money in February. The exact nature of the cutbacks when funding is exhausted is unclear, but there will be potential for serious hunger issues if it is not resolved.
More on food safety ramifications
Critical food safety functions of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are in place. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and local and state health monitoring agencies remain active.
The FDA, however, has furloughed 7,052 employees, about 41% of it’s workforce, and the remaining staff is unpaid as they continue with their work. The FSIS has called plant inspectors and other food safety positions “essential” and the positions will still be working. If individual positions are not funded by user fees or other non-tax sources though, these workers will also be unpaid.
While the core functions are continuing at the moment, The Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a non-profit organization determined to ensure adequate funding for the FDA, issued a shutdown toolkit which implies food safety is already being eroded. The toolkit states, “We know that food safety will be particularly hard hit, including the furloughing of workers in charge of routine inspections, guidance development and also, we assume from staffing training and technical assistance programs (such as) assistance to industry in complying with the FSMA requirements."
Impact to federal employees
If positions are deemed “essential” in a government shutdown, many federal workers will still not receive pay for performing their duties. Federal employees, especially those in lower paying positions or without savings to depend on, might face extensive health challenges of their own from inability to buy food to paying rent.
The effects of lack of pay should not be underestimated on the agencies’ abilities to perform their duties. The TSA, for example, whose workers have been unpaid since the start of the shutdown, has seen an uptick in employees calling in sick. While security screening protocols theoretically won’t be affected, the wait times at airports could begin to increase.
Even the Secret Service can feel the shutdown. “They are asking you to put your life on the line and not paying you — it’s ridiculous,” said Donald Mihalek, 49, a 20-year Secret Service veteran who served on both George W. Bush and Barak Obama’s presidential details. “Morale is a serious issue. This is an incredibly stressful job that requires your full attention, and if you are standing there thinking about your mortgage, or your credit card bills, or the fact that you are burning through your savings, you are distracted, you not able to give 100 percent.”