98% of OCR Employees Furloughed with Government Shutdown

As the federal government shutdown continues, people are starting to see more clearly all of the healthcare related services that are performed by the various Department of Health and Human Services agencies.

Two federal entities having particular influence the healthcare information technology space include the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which investigates HIPAA violations and undertakes enforcement efforts, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which coordinates nationwide efforts to implement health information technology and the electronic exchange of health information. The current shutdown has had a particularly negative impact on these two agencies because 98% of their employees have been furloughed. According to HHS's Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations in the Absence of Enacted Annual Appropriations:
  • OCR
    • Number of employees as of Oct. 1, 2013: 221
    • Total number of staff to be retained: 5
    • Number of staff to be furloughed: 216
    • Percent furloughed: 98%
  • ONC
    • Number of employees as of Oct. 1, 2013: 184
    • Total number of staff to be retained: 4
    • Number of staff to be furloughed: 180
    • Percent furloughed: 98%

During the furlough, it appears that HIPAA/HITECH investigative and enforcement activities undertaken by OCR will be non-existent due to staffing levels. Additionally, the OCR Complaint Portal, which allows individuals to file complaints, is down with a message stating that, "Due to the absence of either an FY 2014 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the Department of Health and Human Services, this site will not be accepting new submissions.  When either an FY 2014 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the Department of Health and Human Services is passed, this site will again accept submissions. Thank you for your patience."


Similarly, ONC will be unable to continue the Standards and Interoperability Framework activities as well as related standards and testing activities; policy activities such as privacy, security, and clinical quality measure development; and administration of the Certified Health IT Product List.

HIMSS reports that while about half of the CMS staff is furloughed, those staff members working on the HITECH program are not affected. "Meaningful use attestation can still occur and payments can still be processed, although the timeline for those payments to be distributed is still in question."

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