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Body + BrainBody & Brain

The Longest-Ever Government Shutdown is Affecting Public Health

One of the results brewing out of the public eye is a public health stalemate, particularly for women and minorities.

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
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The government shutdown is affecting tens of thousands of federal employees. | Photo credit: Emw / WIkimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in an edition of NOVA’s email newsletter, NOVA Lens, and has now been repurposed for NOVA Next. Sign up for NOVA Lens here (select “NOVA Newsletters”).

The current partial government shutdown—the longest ever—has obvious effects on employment. Departments that partially ceased operations on or after December 22 employ about 800,000 workers; of those, 380,000 federal employees have been furloughed and 420,000 are working without pay.

But one of the results brewing out of the public eye is a public health stalemate, particularly for women and underrepresented groups.

Janelle Pocowatchit, program manager for Native American LifeLines of Boston, says that the shutdown is crippling the organization’s ability to provide its constituents with essential health services. Native American LifeLines is contracted by the Indian Health Service, which reimburses it for money spent at both the Boston site and its sister site in Baltimore. But as money runs dry and reimbursement funds from the federal government remain on hold, Pocowatchit is looking at having to lay off staff. And for some Native people in the Boston area, that might mean reduced access to medical information or canceled rides to and from appointments.

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“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pocowatchit says. “We don’t know if they’re going to become homeless [if affordable housing contracts expire] or lose their health insurance. What’s going to happen to the people we serve?”

Native American LifeLines of Boston doesn’t provide direct medical services (except for dental and behavioral health care). Instead, it connects Native people to services. During a government shutdown, this system of care simply isn’t there.

“Living in an urban area, we have many different tribes represented, and a lot of [these people] are not living near their tribal communities,” says Ella Blackowl, a program assistant with Native American Lifelines of Boston. “They’re not able to get services from their tribes like in other parts of the United States.”

From a research perspective, the shutdown may indirectly affect the health of women and newborns, as well. Dr. Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of California San Francisco, says that certain grants aren’t getting approved because of the shutdown, which is causing research interruptions. Woodruff studies environmental contributors to disease. In particular, her work investigates how prenatal exposure to pollutants and other chemicals can adversely affect prenatal development.

“If you have a disruption in the data collection,” she says, “that can leave a hole in your overall analysis.” And there are certain periods of time during pregnancy that are more sensitive than others. “You could miss a critical window of information,” she says, if the science doesn’t happen according to schedule.

And Woodruff notes that for certain substances, consistent and broad monitoring of chemicals is important—and lags in regulation can cause deaths.

Here’s an example: At least 64 people have died from acute exposure to methylene chloride, a chemical that can be used for paint stripping, since 1980. But the federal government only recently announced restrictions on this dangerous substance—actions to limit its availability had been on hold for a while, the Environmental Protection Agency having originally proposed a ban in January 2017. For Woodruff, this is a cautionary tale: Detection of harmful environmental and manmade agents requires vigilance and swift, urgent decision-making—both of which take the backseat when the government isn’t operating fully.

“A cascade of effects can happen as we wait to make decisions about chemicals that can be influencing people’s health,” Woodruff says.

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For employees who’ve been furloughed during the shutdown, day-to-day life could be a struggle.

“I think there’s a mental health cost, too, of not knowing if you’re going to work tomorrow,” says Maryam Zaringhalam, a leadership member of 500 Women Scientists. “Even more than the research, it’s about individual researchers’ lives.”