In just a week, the United States will hit the deadline for the sequester — the automatic spending cuts that were negotiated during the 2011 debt ceiling deal. The spending cuts will begin going into effect on March 1 unless lawmakers broker a compromise to avert sequestration, as they did at the beginning of this year when they agreed to push the deadline back two months. But so far, there’s no sign of a deal.
The sequester’s across-the-board indiscriminate cuts were designed to force lawmakers to reach a deal to reduce the deficit. If they end up going into effect, they could have disastrous consequences on Americans’ health. Here are the top five ways that sequestration will make the nation a less healthy place:
1. More Americans could be put at risk for foodborne illnesses. The number of Americans who get sick or die after consuming contaminated food has increased 44 percent over the last two years. The FDA is currently stretched too thin after rounds of budget cuts to food safety programs, and the sequester will only worsen the situation even more. Cuts to the FDA would lead to 2,100 fewer food inspections across the country, putting more Americans at risk for contracting foodborne illnesses — which already cost the United States about $152 million each year to treat.
2. Medical researchers will be forced to delay the development of treatments that could help sick Americans. An 8.2 percent across-the-board cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could set back medical science for a generation, according to a former NIH director. Existing research would have to be scaled back, and new research projects would have to be postponed — potentially eliminating thousands of research positions across the country, and preventing scientists from doing critical work to develop new treatments for chronic conditions and rare diseases.
3. The government will have fewer resources to provide Americans with health coverage. Under Obamacare, an estimated 9 million previously uninsured Americans will gain health coverage in health insurance marketplaces that states are getting ready for 2014 — but sequestration could slow the implementation of that provision by cutting $66 million in grants intended to help states set up those marketplaces. Similarly, the agency that oversees the public Medicare and Medicaid programs will lose more than $60 million for its program management if the sequester cuts go into effect. And reductions in grants that help fund community health centers, which often serve the most vulnerable Americans, could result in 900,000 fewer adults receiving medical care.
4. Thousands of Americans living with mental illnesses could go untreated. The sequester would result in a $275 million cut to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Mental Health Block Grant program, which help Americans access the mental health care they need. That means that up to 373,000 “seriously mentally ill adults and seriously emotionally disturbed children” may be forced to go without the treatment they rely on, which could lead to an uptick in hospitalizations. And an estimated 8,900 homeless people with mental illnesses may not be able to receive the kind of support — including outreach, treatment, and housing assistance — that is critical to helping their recovery process.
5. Fewer Americans will get screened and treated for HIV. According to the Department for Health and Human Services, the sequestration cuts will have a serious impact on federal official’s ability to continue combating the nation’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since an estimated 20 percent of HIV-positive Americans still don’t know they have the virus, the CDC warns that testing needs to be a top priority — but the cuts to the CDC’s programs would result in about 424,000 fewer HIV tests conducted by state agencies. And an estimated 7,400 fewer patients would have access to their HIV medications through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.