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WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t be able to support its annual influenza program if the government shuts down at midnight tonight, according to the latest contingency plan Friday posted for federal health agencies.
That was true when the government shut down in the past, but this year’s timing coincides with an especially severe flu season at its peak. CDC will, however, be newly empowered to “ensure that staff that are currently supporting the ongoing hurricane response” will continue working — an update to previous contingency plans released by the agency.
In the case of a shutdown, government employees whose work is not deemed “essential,” according to strict legal statute, are sent home. The only exceptions are in cases where the position does not rely on annual federal appropriations, or where the employees are engaged in “activities that involve the safety of human life and protection of property.”
Broadly, the fiscal year 2018 contingency plan largely resembles earlier agency plans. Roughly 50 percent of all Health and Human Services employees would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. At FDA, 58 percent of employees would remain in place. CDC would keep 37 percent of its employees on board, and NIH, 23 percent. In 2013, FDA kept about 55 percent of its employees on board, while CDC and NIH kept 32 and 27 percent, respectively.
As in past years, FDA would have to cease many of its safety and health inspections and other compliance activities, along with much of its laboratory research. User-fee funded programs, especially those that regulate tobacco products, would largely continue, according to the plans.
With the exception of hurricane-response efforts, the CDC’s plan largely reflects the contingency documents laid out in past years. The NIH outline is an exact duplicate of the plan laid out ahead of the government shutdown in 2013.
Former officials across several HHS agencies, including at FDA and CDC, told STAT the actual implementation of agency contingency plans was subject to some interpretation. In the case of the 2013 shutdown, the officials described wide uncertainty about which employees could remain in place.
“In 2013, it honestly was not clear whether the agency could use user fee funds even though those were funds that were not coming out of appropriations,” said an individual who was a senior FDA official at the time and requested his name not be used.
And at CDC, as the 2013 shutdown dragged on, remaining staff pressed OMB to allow some initially furloughed employees to return for critical functions, according to Ed Hunter, who was director of the CDC Washington office at the time.
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