How a Government Shutdown Might Affect Physicians

April 6, 2011

With only days to go before a partial federal government shutdown is triggered at midnight Friday, it's unclear how physicians would be affected -- but it helps to look at the most recent shutdown for clues.

Lawmakers appeared no closer to finding a compromise on the 2011-2012 federal budgets, with only days to go before a partial government shutdown is triggered at midnight Friday. The last time the government was forced to shut down happened between December 1995 and January 1996 during the Clinton administration.

While it’s still unclear how physicians would be affected by a potential government shutdown, it helps to look at the most recent shutdown for clues.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services did not pay Medicare administrative contractors (MACs) during the three-week strike in ’95-‘96, but payments by the MACs to physicians and hospitals continued regardless. Also, the National Institutes of Health stopped accepting new patients for clinical research during the shutdown, and the agency’s disease hotlines and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disease surveillance came to a halt. And the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped providing a number of services, including processing healthcare compensation claims.

Physicians anticipating tax refunds might also be affected if the shutdown resulted in a prolonged Internal Revenue Service workforce disruption during the peak tax-filing season.

And financial news site The Fiscal Times recently reviewed other ways the three-week shutdown affected government services, and noted that any and all of them could be repeated if the budget deadlock isn’t broken by Friday:

• Bankruptcy cases stalled as work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy-protection cases in federal court was suspended.

• Up to 30,000 applications for visas by foreigners went unprocessed daily throughout the strike, as well as 200,000 applications for U.S. passports. As a result, many travelers were unable to fly on airlines or leave the country.