If you totally unplugged this past weekend, you might just now be hearing about the fact that the House and Senate passed a stopgap funding bill Saturday, avoiding a government shutdown with literally just hours to spare. President Biden signed it the same night, ensuring that there is now enough funding to last the federal government until Nov. 17 – that’s just 35 official working days. So, Congress will need to pass another long-term spending bill before then to avoid a shutdown, meaning we aren’t out of the woods just yet.
A government shutdown is rarely totally off the table at the end of September each year; Congress has only passed all necessary funding bills in time for the start of the fiscal year four times since the modern budget process was adopted. The last time it managed to do this was 1997, in case you were wondering! But negotiations this year were particularly tough in the current political climate – and Saturday was not devoid of drama – so many are concerned about the likelihood of reaching a more permanent solution.
But while we’ve all heard the word “shutdown” thrown around repeatedly, what would it actually mean if Congress fails to come to an agreement?
A shutdown would affect many aspects of American life, generally: millions of federal workers would cease to be paid, including many members of the military, as well as Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, so travel would likely be impacted; national parks would close; the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would shut down taxpayer assistance centers; the U.S. economy would be affected in what is already a challenging year; and much more.
In terms of health programs, specifically, the impact is particularly worrisome, particularly for the country’s most vulnerable populations. In plans released before the stopgap bill was passed this weekend, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimated that 42 percent of its own staff would be furloughed, and about half of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) employees would join them.
Now, not every HHS program is part of the annual funding discussion; for example, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security technically have enough funds to keep operating through next year. But while benefits under these programs would continue until then, and doctors and hospitals could continue to submit bills and officially get paid, staff-driven tasks related to these programs – like new Medicare enrollment, ID card replacement, actual provider reimbursement, and supervision of the Medicaid unwinding process across states – could slow to a crawl if a good portion of the staff working on these issues is furloughed.
Additionally, HHS has a multitude of what are considered discretionary programs that do need this annual action taken, including programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV/AIDS initiatives, and community health centers. Community health centers provide primary care, dental care, and mental healthcare to mostly uninsured citizens. Removing access to this care could interrupt ongoing treatment, particularly mental health services, and send more patients to already stretched-thin hospital ER departments. Affected providers could lose these clinics’ necessary staff, depending on how long a shutdown would persist. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits could immediately be impacted, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would follow. Even inspections of certain drinking water facilities and foods would likely be paused.
So, now we enter a very uncertain few weeks. While President Biden hailed Saturday’s events as “good news for the American people,” it’s a rather short reprieve from the stress of the last month, and not everyone in Congress agreed with the outcome of the vote, setting the stage for a potential showdown in the coming days.
As the President reiterated in his remarks on the issue, we may now have time, but not much time.