WASHINGTON -- As workers across the federal government begin to receive furlough notices due to the deep budget cuts known as sequestration, the Department of Health and Human Services is one of the agencies that is still figuring out if it can absorb the reductions without making staff take unpaid leave.
"HHS is working to implement the sequester reductions in a way that tries to minimize the negative impacts on HHS's mission," agency spokesman Bill Hall told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "We do not have final plans or estimates of the impacts on HHS employees at this time, but we continue to evaluate the situation and have made no determinations at this point as to whether we will need to implement any furloughs."
He added, however, that "it's fair to say that our efforts to protect the health and enhance the well-being of all Americans will be significantly impacted by the sequester."
On Friday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to employees at the agency and outlined the ways in which she and her team were planning to deal with sequestration, which cuts $85 billion from the federal government this year. She also warned that while the cuts were worrisome, a government shutdown could be worse. The memo was provided to The Huffington Post by a reader who works at the agency.
"It is vitally important to keep in mind the distinction between the reduction in spending authority triggered by sequestration and the complete absence of funding associated with a government shutdown," wrote Sebelius. "Unlike a shutdown, sequestration does not trigger an automatic break in service. Please plan to continue your scheduled work, even if sequestration goes into effect as anticipated."
Hall pointed to HHS programs that are going to be hurt by sequestration: Head Start and Early Head Start services will be eliminated for approximately 70,000 children, hundreds of medical research projects may go unfunded, cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program could result in 7,400 fewer patients receiving their HIV medication and there will be millions of fewer meals distributed through the Meals on Wheels program.
More than 1 million federal employees face the possibility of unpaid time off due to the across-the-board spending cuts. While some notices went out on Friday -- and more are expected this week -- the furloughs will not actually take effect until April, as the government is required to give employees 30 days' notice.
Each agency is grappling with the cuts differently, and some have said they will be able to absorb them without furloughing employees.
On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that employees would face up to 13 days of unpaid leave through the end of September, while the Department of Homeland Security expects up to 14 days of furloughs in some of its sub-agencies. The Justice Department already sent furlough notices to some staff last week.
Congress and the Obama administration face a March 27 deadline to come up with an agreement to continue funding the federal government. If they don't agree on legislation, a shutdown is likely. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has vowed that he will not advocate for such a scenario.
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Read Sebelius' full memo:
Dear HHS Colleagues,
Given today's sequestration deadline, I understand the concerns you may have during this unpredictable time. I was hopeful that by now Congress would have reached a compromise to avoid these cuts, but that has not occurred. The Administration remains focused on working with Congress to reach agreement on a balanced deficit reduction plan that might still avert these cuts, or at least minimize their impact.
At HHS, our senior leadership team is engaged in extensive planning efforts in the event sequestration goes into effect. Our Department's guiding principle is to protect our ability to serve the American people. Our senior leaders and I have been preparing for the possibility of these reductions in a way that tries to minimize the negative impact on our mission. I cannot stress enough the critical importance of our HHS workforce. You are a key reason that our many agencies are successful in meeting the health and human service needs of our country.
It is vitally important to keep in mind the distinction between the reduction in spending authority triggered by sequestration and the complete absence of funding associated with a government shutdown. Unlike a shutdown, sequestration does not trigger an automatic break in service. Please plan to continue your scheduled work, even if sequestration goes into effect as anticipated.
You will be hearing directly from your senior leadership on further guidance in the near future. We will keep you apprised in advance of any personnel actions necessitated by sequestration. We are continuing to work on implementation plans under sequestration and will notify HHS employees and union leadership as these plans are made final.
Thank you for your continued dedication to our Department and its mission, even in these very uncertain times.