More Health and Safety Impacts of the Government Shutdown
by Ronald White, 10/3/2013
I blogged last week before the federal government shutdown started about potential health and safety ramifications that could result should the shutdown occur. Now that the shutdown is a reality, it’s important to consider some of the health and safety concerns that may be less than obvious.
Take, for example, our senior citizens living in nursing homes. A memo from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services indicates that state programs for routine nursing home inspections are suspended, and inspections will only be conducted in response to complaints involving immediate jeopardy to residents or allegations of actual harm. States already lack enough funding to conduct the required annual surveys in Medicare and Medicaid-funded nursing homes, and the suspension of regular inspections could further jeopardize the safety of residents. In addition, no Medicare complaint investigations will be conducted, again with the exception for immediate jeopardy or actual harm to an individual.
While the Department of Agriculture will continue to inspect meat and poultry, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stopped safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision making.
The FDA’s laboratory work has been essential to uncovering the source of food-borne illnesses, such as the recent multi-state outbreak of listeriosis, a rare and serious illness caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. Listeriosis can be fatal, especially in certain high-risk groups including older adults and people with weakened immune systems and certain chronic medical conditions (such as cancer). In pregnant women, listeriosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature labor, and serious illness or death in newborn babies. Any delay in the ability of FDA to uncover the source of food-related disease has direct public health ramifications.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is responsible for ensuring the health and safety of miners, now has only about 40 percent of its staff working, resulting in limiting mine inspections to “activities, which if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the Nation’s mines.” Hazard inspections will be limited to “those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury,” although investigations will be conducted for accident and miner safety complaints. This means that serious hazards that don’t represent imminent threats to human life, many of which are frequently implicated in substantial harm to mine workers’ health and safety, may go undiscovered and unaddressed during the shutdown period.
As noted in the previous blog on this topic, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which is responsible for ensuring workplace safety and health, has been hit particularly hard by the shutdown, with just 10 percent of its workforce active. OSHA’s remaining inspectors will be limited to “enforcing imminent danger situations, and in responding to workplace fatalities and catastrophes, and employee complaints or other information indicating that workers are potentially exposed to hazards that present a high risk of death or serious physical harm.”
As the shutdown now moves toward the end of its third day with no prospect of an imminent conclusion, let’s hope that our nation’s seniors in nursing facilities, miners and other workers, as well as the general public, don’t suffer the brunt of the extreme conservatives’ political efforts to hold the federal budget hostage.