Thought you’d bury your head in the sand when it comes to the sequestration, right? Well, that may not be so easy to do when it comes to healthcare.
If you’re still getting up to speed, a sequester is the setting of widespread federal budget cuts—which is just what happened on March 1. How could this happen? Months ago, Congress established the sequester as a kind of dare if Republicans and Democrats couldn’t get it together to reach a budget agreement. They didn’t, and the bluff was called—only now the cuts are likely to affect pretty much all Americans, with almost $100 billion in cuts to be phased in over the next few months.
Congress could vote to roll back the sequester, but right now, the gears to set the cuts in motion are underway, and while very little of the federal budget is left unscathed, healthcare costs are bearing a brunt, especially for people with little or no insurance.
Under the rules set up by Congress, some budget items—like food stamps—are untouchable. But other benefits, such as the Women’s’ Infant and Children’s Program, which gives mothers and young children healthy food and access to healthcare, are likely to see deep cuts. In a release issued on March 1, Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), said, “sequester means 424,000 fewer HIV tests conducted by [public health departments], 7,400 fewer patients having access to AIDS Drug Assistance Program and about 25,000 fewer breast and cervical cancer screenings for [low- income] women.”
According to the APHA, the cuts would also reduce food inspections, lower our ability to respond to public health emergencies, reduce funding for states to monitor air quality, cut mental health services, put the public at greater risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and negatively impact many other critical public health programs.
The White House also ticked off some possible sequester-related cuts to health, including:
• Fewer emergency responders: The Federal Emergency Management Agency would need to reduce funding for state and local grants that support firefighter positions and state and local emergency management personnel, hampering our ability to respond to natural disasters like hurricanes and other emergencies.
• Less research: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be forced to delay or halt vital scientific projects and make hundreds of fewer research awards. Since each research award supports up to seven research positions, several thousand personnel could lose their jobs. Many projects would be difficult to pursue at reduced levels and would need to be cancelled.
• Fewer approvals of new drugs: Cuts could result in delays to drug approvals that are currently pending.
• Less-safe workplaces: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could be forced to pull its inspectors off the job for some period of time. This would mean roughly 1,200 fewer inspections of the nation’s most dangerous workplaces, which would leave workers unprotected and could lead to an increase in worker fatality and injury rates.
• More homeless people: More than 100,000 formerly homeless people, including veterans, would be removed from their current housing and emergency shelter programs, putting them at risk of returning to the streets.
The sequester occurred despite intense lobbying by hundreds of health-related organizations. A letter sent last month by close to 300 organizations, including Yale Medical School, the Society for Women’s Health Research, and the National Primate Research Center, said that “at a time when we should be investing more in medical research, we have continued to shrink our investment to a point where we are sacrificing real opportunities for discovery of new innovations and medical advances.”
So what can you do? Email or call people in power in Washington, including the President’s switchboard and your Senators or Representative. Don’t expect to get the Senator on the phone herself, of course, but legislative offices track what constituents have to say and your message can help push them to action.
And in October, when it’s time to sign up for health insurance, make sure you do. Not just to avoid the financial penalty many people will have to fork over if they don’t get health insurance, but because policy analyst organizations such as the Bipartisan Policy Center say even more cuts could be coming—and you may not have a government safety net to rely on for flu shots or other routine health care.
Are you worried about the possible effects of sequestration on healthcare or other parts of your life?
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Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Takepart.com