Government shutdown hits HHS hard on exchange opening day

While tasked with running federal health insurance exchanges now open for enrollment, Congress' failure to pass legislation to avert a government shutdown has forced the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to furlough more than half of its employees.

The agency's contingency staffing plan for operations during a near-term funding hiatus means that 52 percent of HHS staff or 40,512 workers must take furloughs as of day two.

The number varies among and within HHS offices, "depending on the amount of excepted work that needs to be done," the plan states. Moreover, agencies that deliver direct medical services will retain most of their staff.

Without annual appropriations, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, for example, will furlough 65 percent of its 5,994 workers but keep running large parts of the Affordable Care Act, including the health insurance exchanges. During the shutdown, Medicare will carry on "largely without disruption" and today states still will receive Medicaid funding.

However, CMS would cease operations for healthcare fraud and abuse strike force teams and perform fewer Medicare and Medicaid provider recertification and initial surveys, potentially jeopardizing care quality, according to the contingency plan.

The National Institutes of Health, which will not admit any new patients during the shutdown, will retain only 27 percent of staff. Of the 4,948 retained employees, 2,564 will provide care to existing patients.

And the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) will keep running Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Trust Fund projects while furloughing 92 percent of its 317-person workforce. However, the AHRQ will not fund new grants and contracts for research on patient safety improvement and healthcare-associated infection prevention.

For more:
- check out the HHS plan (.pdf)