Staffers from Gov. Eric Greitens’ office have come to the aid of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) after threats of budget cuts for not releasing the results of Bourbon virus testing at Meramec State Park.
On Wednesday, the House budget committee gave DHSS Director Dr. Randall Williams the ultimatum to release the testing results from Meramec State Park, or have its administrative budget cut by 10 percent or more.
Budget committee chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, threatened deeper cuts or even the complete elimination of the DHSS if they didn’t get answers.
Fitzpatrick, and State Reps. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, and Nate Tate, St. Clair, met with DHSS three weeks ago requesting the testing results be released, but their request was not answered by DHSS before the budget meeting Wednesday.
In an audio clip from the hearing obtained by The Missourian, Fitzpatrick and Alferman stressed to the DHSS they do not accept the excuses they have been given and will not take “no” for an answer.
“I want to be perfectly clear, this is not a veiled threat, this is a promise,” Alferman said. “Just from the department not releasing any information makes me suspicious. Let’s not negate the fact we had a state employee pass away from this disease. I think they (DHSS) are hiding behind an interpretation.”
Alferman added the proposed budget cuts are nothing that will hurt anyone receiving services or benefits from DHSS. But, instead they are going to hurt the administration and the bureaucracy continuing to obstruct information.
Those sentiments were shared by Fitzpatrick, who said Alferman’s proposed budget cuts were too kind.
“There were three people from the department (DHSS) in the meeting with us and three members of the general assembly, and the three people who were elected by the people weren’t allowed to have access to that information,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve got a problem with that and we’re going to fix it.”
He added to be fair, the representatives hadn’t had a chance to set up a second meeting with DHSS.
Fitzpatrick was reminded the budget committee has subpoena power and could get answers that way as well.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think they’re (DHSS) going to come around or we can just not have a department of Health and Senior Services. I’m cool with that too.”
Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died from complications of the ultra rare tick-borne Bourbon virus last summer after being bitten by an infected tick over Memorial Day weekend.
DHSS representatives have cited (HIPAA) patient privacy laws saying if the sample portion of people tested was smaller than the population of the entire state of Missouri (6,135,888), they were not required to release the information because it may identify those who may have tested positive.
“We disagree that sharing the number of people tested for the Bourbon virus would be revealing individual identifying information,” Alferman said. “The fact we had an employee of the state die from this disease and we have thousands of people going to that state park and not to get any answers is completely unacceptable. This is not vengeance, this is a public service health risk in my opinion.”
Fitzpatrick added the DHSS citing HIPAA as an excuse is not relevant.
“We don’t know if all the staff there, some of the staff, or members of the public were tested,” Fitzpatrick said. “We don’t know that information. Knowing the number of people that got tested, their (DHSS) argument was a reporter could go around asking everyone who worked at the park if they tested positive or not and by process of elimination you could identify that person. Also, people could lie. It’s ridiculous. If one person was tested and we wanted to know if that person tested positive, that would be a HIPAA violation. This is not a HIPAA violation.”
On Thursday, Tate and Alferman had a closed door meeting in Jefferson City with two staff members from the governor’s office who produced a vague email addressed to Ken Palermo, the administrator of the DHSS Section for Disease Prevention, sent from the Centers for Disease Control dated March 8.
The letter states only staff who worked or volunteered at the park were considered eligible to participate in the investigation.
Blood specimens were collected and tested for the presence of antibodies to Bourbon virus, which would indicate past exposure to the virus.
Results of the epidemiologic investigation indicated limited exposure among park staff with no clear risk factors associated with evidence of infection.
The letter goes on to say since a limited number of staff participated in the investigation, information that could be used to identify individuals is not being disclosed.
Other than the limited information released in the letter, DHSS is citing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws as its reason not to release all of the testing results.
Tate said he and Alferman are not satisfied and are expected to receive more information from the governor’s office when they return to Jefferson City early next week.
Wilson lived in the park outside Sullivan which has 10 full-time employees and an additional 25 seasonal staff.
Wilson’s daughter, Amie Wilson-May, has been in contact with The Missourian since her mother’s death, and verified none of her family members have been tested either.
When asked about the proposed budget cuts and meetings with representatives this week, DHSS Public Information Chief Sara O’Connor had no comment.