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January 2, 2019

Shutdown, Day 12: Who's furloughed at FDA and HHS—and who isn't?

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    The federal government on Dec. 22 entered a partial shutdown that has caused FDA to furlough 41% of its staff.

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    The shutdown occurred after the House, the Senate, and President Trump failed to reach an agreement on a short-term spending bill to extend funding for seven federal departments, FDA, and other federal agencies.

    Trump last month told House Republican leaders that he would not sign a short-term spending bill that did not include funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, so the House on Dec. 20 amended a Senate-passed spending bill to include $5.7 billion for border security and $7.8 billion for disaster relief. The bill returned to the Senate, where it stalled amid Democrats' opposition to the border wall funding.

    Congress recessed on Dec. 22 and will reconvene on Jan. 3—when Democrats will take control of the House. According to Reuters, lawmakers and the Trump administration over the past week have held talks on the matter, but Trump last week said his administration is prepared for a long-lasting shutdown.

    How the shutdown affects federal health agencies

    The shutdown does not affect the majority of federal health care agencies, as Congress in September passed fiscal year 2019 spending bills for HHS and the Veterans Affairs health system. However, lawmakers at the time were unable to come to an agreement on funding for the seven affected federal departments, including the Department of Agriculture, which funds FDA and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

    As a result of the funding lapse, FDA has furloughed 41% of the agency's 17,397 staff members, or about 7,053 employees, as laid out in an HHS contingency plan. HHS said FDA's core emergency response functions, high-risk recall activities, and some of the agency's user-fee funded work are still operating. However, some of FDA's "routine regulatory and compliance" work, inspections, and research activities have halted, HHS said.

    HHS in the contingency plan memo said, 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." However, the document stated, IHS would "only perform national policy development and issuance, oversight, and other functions necessary to meet the immediate needs of the patients, medical staff, and medical facilities."

    HHS' contingency plan stated a total of 7,997 HHS employees, or about 24% of the department's staff, would be furloughed in the instance of a shutdown.

    A threat to public health

    Ladd Wiley, executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, said the shutdown's effect on FDA could affect public health. "Managing only those items that could turn into immediate crisis is not a good way to run an agency that is critical to public health," Wiley said. He added, "There's a whole series of important activities that may not constitute an immediate public health or safety issue that the agency won't be conducting. For example, most individuals involved in regulation or the conduct of policy work are not going to be there, and that's important work for the agency" (Roza, Inside Health Policy, 12/21/18 [subscription required]; Chatterjee, "Shots," NPR, 12/24/18; Drawbaugh/Morgan, Reuters, 12/27/18; Bennett, Roll Call, 12/26/18; Peterson, Wall Street Journal, 12/27/18; Collins, CNN, 12/30/18; Dooley Young, Medscape, 12/24/18).

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