Contingency plan maintains HHS operations during government shutdown

While Medicare work and payments largely would continue without disruption, activities at ONC would not.

As the federal government goes into the third day of its shutdown, the Department of Health and Human Services has a contingency staffing plan set to take effect that would continue the HHS’s operations in many areas.

While the plan calls for HHS to furlough half of its staff as of day two of a near-term funding hiatus, the Medicare program would continue largely without disruption during a short-term lapse as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ other non-discretionary activities.

However, the activities of other agencies—such as the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology—would not continue under the plan.

“ONC will be unable to continue work on standards coordination, implementation, and testing as required by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act and the 21st Century Cures (Cures) Act,” states the HHS document.

In addition, the agency “will be unable to increase interoperability and coordinate federal efforts to ensure improvements of usability related to the use of health IT” and “will not continue working with its partners to combat information blocking and advance other policy and rulemaking activities as required under the Cures Act.”

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HHS estimates that 536 staff—excluding those otherwise authorized by law--would be exempted from the furloughs for the protection of computer data, of which 140 personnel at the National Institutes of Health would be exempted to maintain computerized systems to support research and clinical patient care.

“The majority of retained individuals would be for the maintenance of the hospital data network, clinical research information system, picture archiving and communications systems, radiology information systems and other components directly related to the electronic patient medical record (e.g., patient care unit workstations on wheels and bar coding devices),” according to the plan.

Further, other retained employees “would be necessary to curate concurrent toxicologic data from external contractor sites requiring sophisticated data-handling expertise to prevent corruption of data streams, as well as to ensure the integrity of experimental data systems.”

However, HHS adds that during a shutdown “there would be no routine updating of databases that is normally a major part of these database operations” and that “the plan for continuation of IT infrastructure services represents only the bare minimum to sustain the essential infrastructure for keeping the National Library of Medicine data center operational for serving the external biomedical databases that are used in the provision of non-Federal healthcare.”

According to HHS, the plan “represents initial estimates for HHS activities under a lapse” in congressional appropriations and that over the duration of any lapse, the agency “would continue to review its resources and authorities to minimize impact of such a lapse.”

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