FDA, IHS Managing Through Partial US Government Shutdown

Kerry Dooley Young

December 24, 2018

The chief of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is using his Twitter feed to show how his agency is maintaining certain operations during the current partial government shutdown, from which Congress has spared most other federal medical programs.

"Thank you to the 17 dedicated employees in #FDA's Division of Food Defense Targeting who are working this weekend through the lapse in funding," tweeted FDA Administrator Scott Gottlieb, MD, on December 22.

Gottlieb also tweeted about FDA staff continuing their work monitoring the ports through which food and medicines reach the United States. And Gottlieb retweeted a note of thanks sent Saturday to the FDA by a Washington University cancer specialist about quick action of the compassionate use program, through which patients facing serious illness can gain access to experimental drugs.

In another tweet, Gottlieb noted the "dedication and commitment" of his agency's staffers "as they work through a holiday, with diminished resources, to fulfill key elements of FDA's mission."

The FDA's short-term budget woes stem from a political battle between congressional Democrats and President Donald J. Trump over his bid for funding for a border wall, as well as a quirk in congressional appropriations.

Most of the Department of Health and Human Service's (HHS) budget is funded through a spending bill that also covers the Education and Labor departments. Congress managed to successfully bundle the latest Labor-HHS-Education bill with Defense Department appropriations. Trump signed this roughly $855 billion fiscal 2019 spending package into law days before the new budget year began. That law provided most of the funding needed for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other major federal health agencies.

Left out of this massive spending package, though, were the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill, which funds the FDA, and the Department of Interior bill, which funds the Indian Health Service.

Even with disruptions in the flow of funding to FDA, IHS, and other health agencies, though, certain federal workers would still be expected to report for duty, HHS said in the memo.

"Put another way, more than 76% of HHS employees would be retained and 24% would be furloughed," HHS said in the memo about planning for a fiscal 2019 partial shutdown.

In the memo, HHS said IHS would continue to provide direct clinical healthcare services during a partial shutdown as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics.

But IHS "could only perform national policy development and issuance, oversight, and other functions necessary to meet the immediate needs of the patients, medical staff, and medical facilities," HHS said. 

In a release dated December 21, the IHS told leaders of Native American tribes that the partial shutdown will temporarily cut off the flow of funding to them to cover agreements with the agency.

"We acknowledge that this circumstance may result in insufficient funds to carry out the terms" of agreements connected to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA), the IHS said in the notice to tribal leaders.

Still, in general, the effects of the partial shutdown may be difficult to detect in the early days. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney noted that the shutdown took effect on a weekend and will continue through December 24 and 25, when agencies would be closed anyway for Christmas.

"Wednesday is really the first day this kicks in," said Mulvaney, who will be the next White House chief of staff.

He also told Fox News that the budget stalemate over border wall funding may continue into January, when the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives.

"There's a chance we go into the next Congress" with the partial shutdown continuing, said Mulvaney, who is a former member of the House.

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