Extended Shutdown Could Be Matter of Life and Death

11:35 AM, Oct 2, 2013   |    comments
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Marisol Bello, Jeff Burlew and Liz Crawford, USA TODAY

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, gets emotional when he thinks about the hundreds of patients who won't get help and thousands of research projects put on hold because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

For programs such as NIH clinical trials, Head Start daycare for kids and federally backed mortgages for homebuyers, a lengthy shutdown could translate to heartache, homelessness and even life or death for thousands of Americans.

Collins, a physician, says NIH's Clinical Center receives on average about 200 new patients every week, about 30 of them children. He says these are patients with terminal illnesses from cancer to infectious diseases, and the almost 1,500 NIH clinical trials and research projects represent their last chance for a cure.

"We are their last hope, Collins said. "And to have to turn them away, how can I not feel emotional about that."

Because of the shutdown, current patients will continue to receive care - but the center can't accept new patients.

He says the shutdown comes on the heels of the sequester in which the Institute lost $1.5 billion in funding. The result of the sequester meant that grants for research hospitals, universities and other facilities are at their low levels, with only one in six facilities getting funding. Collins worries that many scientists and researchers will leave their research projects and not come back.

"It's pretty disheartening," he says. "As the director of the NIH, I feel powerless."

The National Head Start Association says the shutdown has "left potentially 19,000 vulnerable children without Head Start services. ... In 23 programs across 11 different states, Head Start programs are now without grant money critical to the delivery of Head Start's high-quality early education."

Many of the programs are able to continue operating with other funds, at least for short periods. But that is little solace to Victoria Thomas, 26, who says she doesn't know how she will provide child care for her daughter, Faith, 4, who attends Head Start each weekday in Miccosukee, Fla.

Thomas, a single mom, is working toward a master's degree in agri-business at Florida A&M University and plans to graduate in December.

"I can't afford child care with my limited resources," Thomas said. "My only option is to take out additional student loans for child care, and I don't really want to be in more debt with my student loans."

Parents of children enrolled in Head Start began looking for alternative child care on Tuesday, after the federal-government shutdown closed nine of the early-education centers in the Big Bend.

Homebuyers also need to take note: If the shutdown runs less than a week, no big deal, lenders and mortgage experts say. But if the shutdown goes longer, "We will be delaying closings," says David Zugheri, executive vice president of Houston-based Envoy mortgage.

Lenders pull tax records from the IRS. Plus, the Federal Housing Administration says it will have "limited staff" during a shutdown and that the closing of FHA-insured loans may be delayed.

Debra Seiler says she can't move into her new home in Greensboro, N.C., on Oct. 11. Seiler is waiting for her FHA loan to be approved before she can move in. The woman in Pittsburgh who's supposed to buy Debra's home is also relying on a FHA loan.

"Now with both those loans stalled indefinitely, it could arrange a situation where somebody could be homeless," explained Kelly Marks, an agent with Re/Max Greensboro.

"Think about how you're affecting the small people, if you want to call us that," Seiler says of Congress and the shutdown. "It's affecting so many lives."

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