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FAA traffic control temporarily spared--but other sequester cuts are already hurting millions

When Friday began, 149 small and mid-size airport towers were set to be shut down beginning this Sunday due to sequestration.

When Friday began, 149 small and mid-size airport towers were set to be shut down beginning this Sunday due to sequestration.

Airports with about 410 take-offs and landings per day or less would suddenly have no direction from a central tower--an alarming prospect.

The FAA's handy map of the 38 affected states was impressive. As was USA Today's admonition that "starting Sunday, tens of thousands of pilots flying each day will have to rely increasingly on 'see-and-avoid.'" You do not want to read the phrase "see and avoid" anywhere near the phrase "tens of thousands of pilots."

To really drive the point home, USA Today online offered this graphic, "When Airplanes Collide," so we can better predict the exact time at which we might encounter this problem. Turns out most collisions occur during taxi; in second place are collisions during approach.

The City Council of Fayetteville, Arkansas, decided to use its own funds to keep its tower open, and there are a handful of lawsuits by local communities to halt tower closures. But just two days from the first, possibly dangerous, closures, the Department of Transportation announced Friday it would delay them until June 15th. This will give the FAA time to resolve the legal challenges, and according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, "make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."

In other words, no promise that these closures will be permanently headed off. The tower story captured our attention in today's editorial meeting because it was a way to focus attention on the tangible consequences of sequestration. But the underlying substance doesn't change the fact that it was also today's bright shiny object of sequestration--a distraction.

With Friday afternoon's announcement of a delay, we were all supposed to breath a huge sigh of relief. But on a parallel track in real time, we are learning that cancer clinics have been forced to turn away thousands of Medicare patients due to sequestration.

Because of the method in which chemotherapy treatment is paid out, a 2% cut in Medicare has put these clinics in a bind. As the chief executive of one cancer clinic put it, "A lot of us are in disbelief this is happening. It's a choice between these patients and staying in business."

The patients can be referred to hospitals, but it's more expensive, and some of the cost will likely be passed on to those patients. According to the Washington Post, "it is still unclear whether hospitals have the capacity to absorb these patients."

So for the thousands of Medicare chemotherapy patients affected by sequestration, Friday brought no eleventh-hour reprieve, no postponement of a horrible unintended consequence, no huge sigh of relief.

In Austin, Texas, "[L]ocal nonprofit WBC Opportunities is being forced to cut back nearly $400,000 from its senior Meals on Wheels and Head Start programs due to federal spending decreases caused by sequestration," according to the Hill Country News. For those folks, Friday brought no change in policy.

In Lafayette, Indiana, "Federal budget cuts should have a negative impact on a number of area nonprofit groups. Places like Food Finders Food Bank are expecting a 5% cut thanks to cuts in the Community Development Block Grant program," according to local news station WLFI. Nothing happened today to change that.

There are local news stories like these all across the country, all because of sequestration— automatic austerity. And of course it doesn't end there, because other sequestration cuts place an even greater demand on these nonprofits.

Four million meals to seniors. Six-hundred-thousand women, infants and children from the WIC nutrition program. Services to 150,000 veterans, cut due to sequestration. Those people, affected by those cuts, may have, today, heard the news that tower closures had been delayed until June 15th. But they got no such good news themselves.

Poverty and illness can smash a life to bits as surely as a plane crash. And the agencies and organizations tasked with watching out to make sure that doesn't happen are evacuating their towers.