By Lenny Bernstein September 22 at 2:39 PM
Patients with critical illnesses will be turned away and research will be disrupted if the government shuts down again on Oct. 1, the director of the National Institutes of Health and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee warned Tuesday.
With just four legislative days remaining until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that during the 16-day shutdown in 2013, new patients were not allowed in to the clinical facilities of the Bethesda medical campus.
During a tour before Tuesday’s news conference, Van Hollen said, he met a young cancer patient who had suffered a recurrence and was being treated at NIH. Hundreds of patients like him were turned away when the government shut down the last time, Van Hollen said.
“If there is a government shutdown…someone like [this child] would not be able to come to NIH to get his treatments,” Van Hollen said. “If you were one of those kids, you would not want to be told that NIH is closed for business.”
NIH is located in Van Hollen’s Maryland congressional district. The seven-term Democrat is seeking a Senate seat in next year’s election.
During opening remarks, NIH Director Francis S. Collins lamented a slide in funding for NIH research and, in particular, the $1.55 billion lost when automatic budget cuts took effect via budget sequestration in 2013. As a result, Collins said, NIH was unable to fund 600 research grants.
“Who knows which of those grants would have been the next big breakthrough in diabetes or cancer or infectious disease?” Collins said.
Federal contingency plans based on the last shutdown show that 54 percent of 84,222 employees who work for the Department of Health and Human Services would be furloughed in the event of another shutdown. NIH is part of the HHS department. NIH would continue to care for patients already in its clinical center and provide minimal support for the animals in its labs.
Collins said that scientists in other countries who have looked to the U.S. as a leader in biomedical research are beginning to wonder about the nation’s commitment.
“Other countries, in fact, look at us and wonder what happened,” he said. “Many of them are trying to be America and yet, to them, American seems to have lost its way in biomedicine and science.”
Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.