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NIH Preps for Potential Federal Shut-down

Ed. Note: President Obama and Congress reached a deal on the budget late Friday night and averted a shutdown of the government. They are still, however, working out details of the plan, which will cut around $38 billion from the federal budget.

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – As the White House and leaders in both houses of Congress engage in last-minute negotiations to agree on a federal budget for the remainder of 2011 (a short-term funding resolution expires tonight), the Department of Health and Human Services and most other agencies are preparing for the possibility that the government may be shut down for a period of time.

For HHS agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that means most of their facilities and operations will be shut down, most of their workers will go home, and most of their functions and operations will be on hold, according to an HHS document available on its website.

While the majority of HHS will be ordered not to return to work during a shut-down, a number of employees will be needed to maintain some operations that cannot be turned off, including those that fall under the "safety of life" category and protection and care of facilities, lab animals, computers, and experiments that can't be interrupted.

Across HHS, nearly 48,000 of its roughly 76,000 employees, around 62 percent, would be furloughed.

At NIH, its Clinical Center will not take on new patients, although staff will remain to care for existing ones and run ongoing trials, but it will not undertake any new clinical trials. FDA will stop its review of new pharmaceuticals and medical devices and its monitoring of most drug interactions and food safety tests, but it will continue to review imports at entry points in the US and make decisions about admitting those items.

At CDC, federal staff would not be able to support grants or intramural activities in a range of activities, such as the Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion programs.

HHS does expect to maintain its service to continue to post funding opportunity announcements and to accept and process grant applications for fully funded programs and those that have been given exceptions from the shut-down, as well as to accept and store applications for programs that have not received such exceptions.

Roughly 12,444 staff members at HHS would be excepted from furlough in order to provide medical services, with the vast majority of these being at the NIH Clinical Center and the Indian Health Service. NIH would have over 2,500 employees excepted for direct patient care services, and because many NIH patients are there due to the failure of other treatment options and they may have no other alternatives available, it would have around 90 percent patient occupancy during the beginning phases of a shut-down.

NIH also would maintain a staff of 982 to protect its research properties, animals, and inanimate properties. These workers would protect NIH properties at 281 government buildings valued at $15 billion, and an additional 45 leased facilities. Lab animals requiring care at NIH include 1,438,000 mice, 122,000 fish, 66,000 rats, and 3,500 non-human primates.

Also at NIH, a staff of 235 would remain to maintain computerized systems to support research and clinical patient care, with the majority of those being needed to maintain the hospital data network, clinical research information systems, archiving and communication systems, radiology systems, and other electronic records activities.

NIH would maintain access to databases by using a minimum staff to identify and correct certain access problems, but there would be no routine updating of databases, and the overall IT infrastructure plan would focus only on keeping the National Library of Medicine data center operational for external biomedical databases.

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