While Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) coverage will continue during the shutdown, with 800,000 federal employees going without paychecks, there are a range of fears looming in terms of health, for federal workers specifically, as well as for public health more generally.
Kaiser Health News recently reported the story of Joseph Daskalakis, a federally employed air traffic controller in Minnesota whose son was born on New Years Eve, about 10 weeks earlier than expected. The very premature baby was taken to a specialized neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in a hospital outside of the father’s insurer’s network. Ordinarily, he would be able to file paperwork and switch insurers. But this isn’t possible during the shutdown. And while Mr. Daskalakis’ insurer and the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM, which oversees federal health benefits programs) website have indicated that his requested change of carriers to have that hospital in his network would be effective retroactively, his family still received an initial bill of $6,000, with more charges likely yet to come. And as long as the shutdown lasts, none of those federal employees can add spouses or newborns to existing plans or change insurers in the case of unexpected circumstances.
Uncertainty surrounding medications during the shutdown can also present incredibly difficult decisions for federal workers, as it already has for Mallory Lorge, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lorge is diabetic and began rationing her insulin because “‘the thought of having more debt was scarier than the thought of dying’ in her sleep.” Lorge went an entire weekend without using her insulin pump, experiencing skyrocketing blood sugar levels, but knowing she couldn’t afford the copay if she needed more insulin.