Government shutdown halts ONC’s policy work, minimizes IT staff at NIH

Computers connecting
The government shutdown halts ONC's work on interoperability and data blocking. (Getty/TCmake_photo)

Update: Hours after this story was published, the Senate approved a three-week spending bill, ending the government shutdown. 

A government shutdown that began on Saturday will furlough half of the staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, including nearly everyone in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Just six of ONC’s 179 employees will remain onboard during the government shutdown, including four that will conduct an “orderly phase-down and suspension of operations,” according to a planning document (PDF) released by HHS. The agency's plan becomes effective at noon. 

RELATED: Government shutdown begins Saturday as bitterly divided Senate rejects House-passed spending bill

The shutdown means ONC is unable to continue health IT “standards coordination, implementation and testing,” according to HHS. The agency will also be forced to suspend policy work associated with implementing the 21st Century Cures Act, including improvements to health IT interoperability and usability and data blocking.

“ONC will not continue working with its partners to combat information blocking and advance other policy and rulemaking activities as required under the Cures Act,” according to the HHS staffing plan.

Meanwhile, HHS has identified 536 staff members across the agency tasked with maintaining the agency’s computer system, including 140 staff devoted to National Institutes of Health (NIH) systems that support research and patient care. HHS says the plan includes “minimum staff required to identify and correct dynamic access problems caused by changes in the volume and types of use,” but NIH databases would not be routinely updated.

“The majority of retained individuals would be for the maintenance of the hospital data network, clinical research information system, picture archiving and communications systems, radiology information system, and other components directly related to the electronic patient medical record (e.g., patient care unit workstations on wheels and bar coding devices),” the HHS plan states. “Additional retained employees would be necessary to curate concurrent toxicologic data from external contractor sites requiring sophisticated data-handling expertise to prevent corruption of data streams, as well as to ensure the integrity of experimental data systems.”