The government shutdown and its impact on healthcare

Perhaps by the time you read this column, Republicans and Democrats will have reached a compromise and the government will be back in business and thousands of federal employees will be back to work.

And perhaps, as my grandmother was fond of saying, pigs also will learn to fly.

I'm not a betting person, but I'll throw caution to the wind and predict our government leaders will still be blaming one another for this crisis and the shutdown will be entering its fourth day. Based on the way the negotiations--or lack thereof--are going, it's not beyond the realm of possibility this shutdown will last longer than the 28-day standoff in 1996.

At the center of this debacle is healthcare reform--a program designed to extend health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans and the crowning achievement of the Obama administration. Republicans hate it and are doing everything in their power to crush it. They refuse to pass a spending bill that doesn't defund the healthcare reform law and Democrats won't allow it to become a bargaining chip.

Ironically, the government partially closed for business on Tuesday, the same day the federal health insurance exchanges opened to provide health coverage to uninsured Americans as part of the Affordable Care Act.

And as the bickering continues with no end in sight, 800,000 federal government employees are out of work and the American public is growing more disgusted by the day. The latest Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll shows 72 percent of 1,497 registered voters surveyed oppose the government shutdown.

And even among those against healthcare reform, 58 percent said they are opposed to Congress cutting funds for the law to stop its implementation. So basically, even if they hate the idea of the Affordable Care Act, Americans don't think it's worth shutting down government offices over it.

And yet as of Tuesday, because of the shutdown, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' staffing contingency plan went into action. The action plan means:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can no longer monitor the spread of flu or other infectious diseases.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid has stopped its healthcare fraud and abuse operations and will be unable to perform as many Medicare and Medicaid provider recertification and initial surveys.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality will not fund new grants and contracts for research on patient safety improvement and healthcare-associated infection prevention.

The National Institutes of Health isn't admitting any new patients and will retain 27 percent of its staff to provide care to existing patients. The NIH's Clinical Center this week had to turn away 30 children who came looking for treatment for incurable illnesses from cancer to infectious disease, Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told USA Today.

"When I think of the patients who come here--we are their last hope and to have to turn them away, how can I not feel emotional about that," Collins told the newspaper. "It's pretty disheartening. ... As the director of the NIH, I feel powerless."

He isn't the only one. - Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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