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10/18/2013

The Government Shutdown from a Pharmacy Student's Perspective

With the government shutdown finally being resolved this Thursday, the affect it has had on the American public has taken the form of closed National Parks and a bickering Congress. But the impact of the shutdown goes far beyond what the media and pundits are discussing in their daily rundowns. As healthcare professionals, there are serious ramifications that endangered the public health and the ability of us to treat patients who desperately need care.

While the shutdown didn’t interrupt vital services provided by Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs, agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Food  and Drug Administration (FDA) were forced to furlough the majority of their employees. The FDA had been forced to furlough 60% of their inspectors which  prevented the FDA from effectively being able to inspect the companies that prepare the food we eat every day. The CDC was unable to monitor outbreaks of disease in the country and even led to 300 people falling ill with salmonella. In addition to  hamstringing the ability of government agencies to protect citizens from disease and contaminated food, the government shutdown also had a negative impact on how clinical trials were being conducted. 

With so much vital research being funded by government grants, and overseen by government agencies, the country’s medical researchers took a serious blow. The National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland was being described as a ghost town with countless experiments that relied on live animals and cell lines being put in jeopardy after 73% of its staff were furloughed. With the government shutdown, NIH scientists were not permitted to work and were only given 4 hours to mothball their laboratories at the beginning of the shutdown. From October 1st to the end of the shutdown this Thursday, only 12 patients with extreme circumstances were permitted to enter clinical trials at NIH. A program that accepted hundreds of patients a week was being forced to turn those people away. One such patient who was turned away was Michelle Langbehn. Diagnosed with a rare cancer, Michelle’s only hope for treatment was a study being conducted by NIH; but with the shutdown, NIH simply could not afford to start new trials or support the addition of new patients.

In addition to NIH, college research and academia were also affected. The impact was so great that the University of Michigan created a Q&A page for their researchers which now states that everything is back up and running as of October 17th. Visitors to the vital resource PubMed were greeted by this: “PubMed is open, however it is being maintained with minimal staffing due to the lapse in government funding. Information will be updated to the extent possible, and the agency will attempt to respond to urgent operational inquiries.” PubMed is a resource that is used by thousands of healthcare professionals and students and its limited capacities, as caused by the shutdown, could have very well negatively influenced a pharmacy student’s education or more importantly a clinical decision.

With the shutdown finally over and the Nation’s leaders continuing to point fingers of blame as the media attempts to assign winners and losers in the battle that raged on Capitol Hill, what seems to be lost in all the rhetoric is that patients were denied treatment and researchers were being prevented from discovering tomorrow’s cures. The shutdown might be over for now, but its impact on our public health and medical fields could be felt for years to come.

Mackenzie F. Blair, PharmD '15

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