With no end in near sight for the federal government shutdown, health officials have been sounding alarms over the potential impact on crucial services. Patients may be denied certain experimental treatments or be unable to enroll in federally-sponsored clinical trials. Federally-funded food assistance programs may soon run out of money to provide infant formula and free meals. Here are five ways the federal shutdown could negatively affect your health.
1. Delays in a clinical trial enrollment. The government’s clinical trial enrollment website clinicaltrials.gov will not be updated during the shutdown, and any new studies submitted by researchers won’t be processed until the government re-opens. While the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center will still provide patient care, new patients expecting to enroll in new research studies may experience delays in treatment.
NIH director Francis Collins told the Associated Press that each week the shutdown continues, the NIH hospital will have to turn away 200 patients, 30 of them children, seeking to enroll in new studies—often for last-resort treatments after they’ve exhausted all other options.
2. Cutbacks on tracking the spread of the flu and other contagious diseases. With the onset of the flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t be tracking the viruses spread through cities and states while the government is shutdown. Two-thirds of the CDC’s employees—about 8,000 workers—have been furloughed. That also means less manpower to investigate culprits causing food-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases spreading through local communities.
3. Disruption of services at military and VA hospitals. While VA and military hospitals will remain open, certain services won’t be available. Rehabilitation benefits won’t be processed, and if the shutdown lasts for more than a few weeks, the Department of Veterans Affairs will run out of money to pay disability claims and pensions, which could affect more than 3 million veterans.
Tricare Military Health system released a statement predicting that the shutdown will likely impact “the delivery of health care services within our military hospitals and clinics.” While inpatient and emergency services will continue without disruption, patients would experience delays in scheduling new appointments and should contact their doctors to make sure previously scheduled appointments will be kept.
4. Lack of access to low income food assistance programs. Federal programs delivering food assistance to low income folks in Massachusetts will continue to provide in the near future. “At this time, a full complement of WIC services is being provided to participants,” reads a statement on the state’s Department of Health and Human Services website. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that most states will have enough funding to continue operations for about a week but “would likely be unable to sustain operations for a longer period.” SNAP programs that provide food stamps won’t be affected by the shutdown, according to the USDA, since their funding has been secured through the next fiscal year.
5. Cutbacks in medical research. Boston teaching hospitals haven’t felt much impact from the shutdown so far, but their research labs could experience severe disruptions of federal funding if the shutdown lingers through the end of the week.
“Some Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers could receive stop-work orders from the federal government, and researchers are aware that new grant applications will not be processed until normal government operations resume,” said a statement released from the hospital. Spokesperson Tom Langford said researchers are nervous about an NIH grant deadline approaching on October 7. Any delay in those grant submissions could leave labs without federal funding for an indefinite period of time and could delay vital research projects.