Now that the budget impasse that stagnating swaths of the federal government appears to have ended (Washington Post), it is worth considering what lessons might be learned from the shutdown—in particular, the shutdown’s effect on the health of Americans.
The enforcement of food safety was diminished. The FDA conceded at the beginning of the shutdown that it would “be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities…[and] safety activities such as routine establishment inspections,…some compliance and enforcement activities, [and] monitoring of imports” (HHS Contingency Staffing Plan). Inspections of any single inspection sight are infrequent, occurring only once every few years, but that only underscores the importance of maintaining the already meager inspection regime. The USDA continued to inspect meat, poultry and egg products during the shutdown (USDA Operations Plan for Absence of Appropriations), yet inspecting the majority of food, including all imports, is the FDA’s responsibility.
Congressional wrangling (over, inter alia, a tax on medical devices) also jeopardized likely health legislation. In late September the Senate HELP committee appeared poised to pass legislation increasing regulation of compounding pharmacies (HELP), following the passage of a similar bill by the House (CBS). One year has passed since the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak that has been blamed on contaminated drugs processed by the New England Compounding Center. NECC recalled drugs because of contamination but not, as suits filed in federal court allege, in time to prevent the drugs from being administered. In Tennessee, which has a one-year statute of limitations on product and health-care liability suits, several suits have been filed. 16 of the 64 killed were treated in Tennessee (Tennessean). The outbreak injured hundreds more and publicly illuminated the lack of FDA oversight of compounding pharmacies (New York Times). The Drug Quality and Security Act would create a new class of compounders called “outsourcing facilities” and places the class under FDA’s jurisdiction (MedPage Today). Though critics characterize the impending legislation as insufficient, a distracted Congress means a delay in progress, however minimal.
Also affected by the federal slowdown was the CDC, which monitors foodborne disease. The CDC furloughed 8,754 employees even though, as CDC Director Tom Frieden tweeted, “Microbes…didn’t shut down” (Twitter). In particular, 78 of the 80 foodborne pathogen analysts at CDC were furloughed (New York Daily News). Thirty of those analysts have since been recalled to cope with an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that has reached 18 states and sickened more than 278 people. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that it would not shut down a processing plant to which much of the tainted poultry was traced, citing the processor’s timely submission and implementation of improved processing practices (Food Safety News). How much more quickly a fully-operational contamination-detection mechanism would have coped with the outbreak is unclear. But the shutdown has demonstrated the urgency of health preparedness missing since October 1.
While CDC was able to recall the 30 analysts to address the salmonella outbreak and generally retains the authority to recall its furloughed employees in case of emergency, its response was still slowed. The danger may not lie in CDC’s reactive capabilities, but in its proactive capabilities. The shutdown hampered CDC’s role as a hub for nationwide health crisis management. Without employees to field calls from state health agencies, the CDC would have been unable to coordinate state and interstate crises and attack growing epidemics. As flu season approaches, CDC leaders worried they would not be able to react timely to an outbreak. Similarly, they also worried about whether U.S. Muslims, 11,000 of whom will travel to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, would be exposed to the MERS virus there, and whether the CDC would be able to respond in time if Americans carried the virus home (USA Today). Moreover, CDC had been forced to cut its quarantine staff at airports around the nation by 80 percent (Time).
In addition to preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness and communicable disease, individuals who are already sick faced barriers to new treatments. Two hundred new patients arrive at the National Institutes of Health each week to begin clinical trial programs with new drugs (CNN). For some, these new drugs may promise hope after all other treatment options have been exhausted. Ongoing trials have not been terminated but new enrollees were turned away. The week the government shut down, 30 of the patients beginning treatment programs would have been children—a third of them pediatric cancer patients.