January 22, 2019

Government Shutdown Exposes Americans’ Vulnerability

Sorry, we're closedFor many Americans, being able to afford medications is critical, and just one paycheck can be the difference between life and death even with health insurance.

The other day, we heard about a furloughed federal worker who was forced to ration insulin because of the government shutdown. “I can’t afford to go to the ER. I can’t afford anything,” she told NBC News.

With type 1 diabetes, the Wisconsin resident, who works for the Department of Interior, had recently been hospitalized for sepsis and respiratory failure during a bout of pneumonia. Afterward, her blood sugar had hit levels that made her worry about ketoacidosis and the risk of diabetic coma.

“I just went to bed and hoped I’d wake up,” she said.

When times are tough financially, people regularly make dangerous decisions regarding their health – because they have to. The government shutdown created a reason for the media to cover these stories but they are events that happen daily to all kinds of workers, not just those who work for the government.

These stories are all over the news as people affected by the shutdown struggle with paying for medications, among other problems. Money magazine noted that people are “letting prescriptions lapse, postponing doctors’ appointments,” making “potentially dangerous decisions about their health” and turning to crowdsourcing to pay expenses. The magazine reported that their GoFundMe search for “government shutdown” returned more than 1,600 campaigns. They included a breast cancer patient, a new mother needing diapers, formula and groceries, and a 14-year-old trying to help his mom get glasses.

Our systems are failing us

Whether it happens because of a government shutdown or losing your job, having a spouse pass away or seeing a reduction in your working hours, people making decisions to forego medications, eat less or poorly, delay a visit to a doctor, or crowdfund their medical expenses are stories that show how our systems fail all of us. We hope people see that the shutdown stories are not just about this particular moment in history, but are unfortunately typical and daily parts of the American experience. This crisis is exposing the holes in our safety net.

About 800,000 government workers have been furloughed. But they are not the only ones whose healthcare may be affected. Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA are insulated from the freeze, along with key public health surveillance programs run by the CDC and NIH, because the Health and Human Services appropriation was passed and signed. However, the Indian Health Service, which is operated by HHS but funded through the Department of the Interior, has had to halt money for tribal health programs.

And you don’t have to work for the government to find yourself impacted by the shutdown. This small business owner makes craft kits that are her only source of income, with over half the sales coming from national park stores. With bills for recent emergency room visits by both her children- her son had fallen and impaled his thigh on a piece of rebar – and a Bronze plan that carries a $14,000 family deductible, she expects lost sales to reach $6,000 if the shutdown runs to the end of January.

Food stability also affected

Other victims of the shutdown are people depending on food support. About 38 million low-income Americans receive federal food assistance, which is funded through the Department of Agriculture. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves 1.8 million people in Illinois – 1 in every 7 residents. They normally get their SNAP benefits in the first 10 days of the month, but the distribution is being made early due to the emergency. The Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP here, has launched a campaign to inform recipients that they will need to make it last through February, and possibly beyond.

The early distribution is expected to create a rush on groceries and then on food banks like the Greater Chicago Food Depository as benefits run out. The demand is likely to far exceed their capacity. For every meal the depository provides, the Chicago Tribune noted, SNAP provides eight.

While all this shows the strain of our government at present, it also hammers home the importance of public benefit programs, a viable safety net, and affordable healthcare. As the Federal Reserve Board recently reported, 40% of Americans would not be able to afford an unexpected $400 expense and –even before the shutdown – 1 in 4 adults was avoiding necessary medical care because of the cost.

Why safety nets matter

We have been sharing these stories for years, like why Medicaid expansion makes a difference for someone to put food on the table, pay for transportation to work, or childcare. It’s the reason we advocate for comprehensive coverage that doesn’t leave families in the lurch when they face unexpected expenses. It’s why we advocate against poor federal financing proposals for state Medicaid programs.

We hope that you’re reading these stories and that you join us in the fight to protect public benefits. This fight right now is for our federal workers, but it’s for regular everyday Americans too, and it doesn’t end with the shutdown. At Smart Policy Works, we’re looking out for your financial security when your personal emergency isn’t a national news story, or when you lose your job and need benefits to get through a tough time, and we want to make sure that you don’t have to make choices about whether to eat or pay for insulin.

These are things that people don’t think about until they need them. We do not plan for our kid to impale himself on rebar – or for our government to shut its doors. But really, all of us are a few bad circumstances away from really needing that safety net.

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