‘This is a matter of life and death...’ Americans feel the shutdown start to bite

Vital services affected as Congress gridlock enters tenth day

Los Angeles

For many people in the US, the first week of the government shutdown has caused no more inconvenience than a cancelled trip the zoo. But as Congress continues to fail in resolving its differences, the consequences for those beyond Washington are growing ever starker, and to some the shutdown – now in its 10th day – is a matter of life and death.

That’s the case for Michelle Langbehn, one of an estimated 200 patients each week who are being denied the opportunity to undergo clinical trials at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Last year, aged 29, Langbehn was diagnosed with a rare variety of cancer, and has since been through nine cycles of chemotherapy.

In search of an alternative, she recently signed up for the trial of a promising new drug with the NIH, but the shutdown has prevented her treatment going ahead. “Lives are at stake,” Ms Langbehn told The Washington Post. “This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience. This is a matter of life or death… There are 200 people that are trying to get into clinical trials each week.”

The shutdown has also had a broad impact on public health, after an outbreak of salmonella was this week traced back to three chicken farming facilities in California. Some 278 people across at least 17 states have already fallen ill, and 42 per cent of those affected have been taken to hospital.

Yet the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) was unable to adequately monitor the outbreak at its outset, because the shutdown had forced the closure of PulseNet, a national network linking public health laboratories, designed to spot and trace the spread of food-borne illnesses.

Seven of the eight staff who man the system had been sent home. Since the outbreak was identified, the CDC has reportedly called back several of the workers furloughed from its foodborne division.

A majority of the nation’s estimated 800,000 federal workers remain on leave. Many are expecting a pay cheque tomorrow, which, if the gridlock in Washington goes on, may be their last for some time. Due to the timing of the shutdown, tomorrow’s wage packet will contain no more than 60 per cent of their normal pay – and many federal workers were already forced to cut back following sweeping budget reductions, known as sequestration, which led to widespread unpaid leave periods earlier in 2013.

Michelle Langbehn, cancer patient: 'Lives are at stake. This isn't just a matter of inconvenience' (Reuters) Michelle Langbehn, cancer patient: 'Lives are at stake. This isn't just a matter of inconvenience' (Reuters)  

Over the weekend, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to ensure that all furloughed workers would receive back pay when the shutdown comes to an end, though that bill is presently stalled in the Senate.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, that represents around 150,000 federal employees, said the effects of the delay in pay would nonetheless be “devastating” to her members. Ms Kelley told Bloomberg, “Their mortgage isn’t cut in half – their rent, their food, their utility bills aren’t cut in half. They are middle America. They are like most other Americans who live pay cheque to pay cheque.”

Among those sent home at the start of the shutdown were people at the forefront of the US national security apparatus, and the CIA revealed on Tuesday that it would bring back some of its employees  because of concerns about  the “potential adverse cumulative and unseen impact on national security” caused by the shutdown.

In a statement, the agency’s director John Brennan said that a significant portion of his workforce was on hiatus, and he would recall those necessary to “core missions”, including foreign intelligence collection, analysis, covert action and counter-intelligence.

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, reportedly authorised the recall of workers at several other intelligence agencies, too, after he testified at a hearing last week that the extended furloughs were having an “insidious” effect on those agencies’ operations, leaving the US increasingly vulnerable to threats such as terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has welcomed almost all of its 350,000 civilian employees back to work, with the Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, citing a recent law that suggests those workers are critical to national security.

Furloughed federal employees protest the government shutdown (EPA) Furloughed federal employees protest the government shutdown (EPA)  

That will come as little comfort to the families of five soldiers killed in Afghanistan last weekend, who, because of the shutdown, will receive neither death benefits or the money to fund their funerals. Four died in an attack in Kandahar Province on Sunday: Sgt Patrick Hawkins, 25; Private Cody Patterson, 24; Sgt Joseph Peters, 24; and First Lieutenant Jennifer Moreno, 25. A fifth, 19-year-old Lance Corporal Jeremiah Collins, was killed in a separate incident in Helmand on Saturday.

Under normal circumstances, their families would each receive $100,000 (£63,000), as well as burial benefits and a 12-month housing allowance. Yet during the shutdown they will have to pay their own way even to meet the soldiers’ bodies as they return to the US.

If the US is concerned about its military personnel overseas, it should also be worried about its dwindling international prestige in other areas.

On Monday, a trio of American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Collectively James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof answered the crucial question of how cells produce molecules, and how they move those molecules around. Their work was funded to the tune of $49m by the NIH, which, as Michelle Langbehn learnt to her dismay, has furloughed most of its staff.

Speaking to The New York Times, NIH director Dr Francis Collins asked, “How many potential future Nobel Prize winners are struggling to find research support today, or have been sent home on furlough?”

House Republicans aside, there is one small group for whom the shutdown has a silver lining: skateboarders. The Wall Street Journal reports that following the 11 September attacks in 2001, a security crackdown kept skaters from the stone steps of Washington’s federal buildings. With “non-essential” federal staff on furlough, however, skaters have returned to the city’s plazas and monuments.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Administrator - Swedish Speaking

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum