This story was updated on Aug. 26, 2013.
Before several hundred employees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin pledged Monday to do “everything in my power” to put an end to federal sequestration budget cuts that have hit federal agencies and contractors throughout Montgomery and Frederick counties.
“Government has already been cut substantially in recent years,” Cardin said. “I’m tired of seeing federal workers be made the scapegoat for every budget battle.”
While many agencies have avoided layoffs and furloughs of employees by delaying services or cutting grants, the effect of the across-the-board budget cuts has been devastating for those workers who have lost jobs, Cardin said at the NRC’s Rockville headquarters after a short meeting with employees.
“It has been as bad as we thought it would be,” he said.
The NRC saw a 5 percent budget cut for fiscal 2013, or $52 million, and avoided furloughs through delaying research and licenses, and cutting upgrades to its IT system.
“About half our cuts are about evenly divided between delays in, and reduced support for, new reactor licensing and delays in long-term or discretionary research,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. The agency is also delaying system-wide computer upgrades and slashing education grants and employee training.
About 2,400 civilian employees at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda have taken 11 unpaid furlough days since early July, causing reductions in the number of operating rooms and other services at the military hospital, which treats wounded soldiers.
But the furloughs are ending, and services are “back to normal operations,” according to Walter Reed’s website.
The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda saw its 2013 budget cut about 5 percent, or $1.6 billion, from last year and is avoiding furloughs by awarding fewer research grants to companies and nonprofits. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg is also cutting grants, contracts, and maintenance and equipment procurements, as well as deferring hiring to avoid furloughs.
Montgomery and Frederick counties have about 51,300 federal workers between them, 35 percent of the total federal employees in Maryland, according to state labor figures. While the number of workers declined by 300 in the two counties in the past year, it actually rose by almost 1,000 from two years ago.
The start of fiscal 2014 is Oct. 1, and Cardin said he knows he has his work cut out for him on this matter.
“We must replace sequestration with a realistic budget before facing even more dire cuts in the year ahead,” he said.
After his meeting at the NRC, Cardin went to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring to meet with medical leaders and partners from across Montgomery County and the region to discuss implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
He said Maryland might be well ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing the act, but he has concerns that misinformation, unclear costs and a complex registration process could impact the state’s ability to sign up its uninsured.
Medical leaders said residents are hearing misinformation about the ACA. Some even believe it has been repealed.
Coupled with the state not yet releasing its application or publishing a breakdown of the plans and the rates that will be available, when enrollment opens Oct. 1, Maryland could face challenges signing up residents.
Politics continues to embroil the law and has made it hard to get a clear, accurate message out to the public, Cardin said. He encouraged those gathered Monday to promote grassroots efforts to ensure that people know what the law actually requires, what is available to them, how they sign up for a plan and apply for any subsidies, as well as the cost and the benefits to the law.
While Cardin said he is overall encouraged by what he heard Monday, he will be reaching out to the state to obtain an application and rates so that he and his staff can better understand what uninsured constituents will face come Oct. 1.
Kate S. Alexander contributed to this report.