As of the today, the U.S. government remains no where near the possibility of ending the shutdown that has gripped the nation and has left over 800,000 federal employees unemployed since last Tuesday. And while the impact of the government shutdown on health IT hasn’t necessarily received prime importance or attention via media coverage, it is still important to note the affects taking place on health IT today and the toll it’s taking on both providers and patients.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said last week that the shutdown will reverse any progress it has made on cutting its much criticized backlog of disability claims.
As of the beginning of August, the backlog had been attached to 496,000 claims, from 611,000 claims in March. The longer this shutdown plays out, the longer veterans will go without answers about whether their care will be covered or not.
While the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have said that it will continue to accept and process Meaningful Use attestations during the shutdown, such efforts will most definitely be limited and restricted with its labor force significantly reduced by more than 3,500 employees, which is even more bad news for providers.
"CMS is slow enough as it is, let along any prolonged interruption. If it is just a day or two, no big problem, but a week or more is going to spell chaos. The longer this shutdown lingers, the more rural providers like HCHC will continue to feel financially squeezed,” said FierceHealthIT Editorial Advisory Board member Stephen Stewart, CIO at Henry County Health Center in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights, which is in charge of enforcing privacy and security rules outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, has been reduced from 221 employees to five, two of whom are in charge of "orderly phase-down and suspension of operations." Therefore, the longer this shutdown continues, the less safe patients will feel about the privacy of their protected health information and medical records.
ONC has also had to push back all standards and interoperability scaffold activities, as well as all work related to privacy, security and clinical quality measurement, and administration of the Certified Health IT Product List. For many in congress already think that Meaningful Use processes are too slow and difficult, that the program is a "waste of taxpayer dollars" or that the government should re-evaluate the program. Again, the longer this shutdown prevails, the more health IT policy work remains dormant, only adding more wood to the fire for opponents of such efforts.
While health IT isn’t considered a heavyweight topic in mainstream media and in light of thousands of people currently unemployed, still it should not be ignored. Because the longer this shutdown lasts, the more difficult and painful it will be on providers and patients alike.