The Missouri House budget committee voted to slash funding to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) because the agency has refused to release information it feels is important to public safety.
The squabble between state representatives and the DHSS began when the agency declined to release Bourbon virus testing information from Meramec State Park. In June 2017 a park employee, Tamela Wilson, 58, Sullivan, died from the virus. Since then the DHSS has balked at the requests from The Missourian and legislators to divulge information about the full impact of the virus, including how many people contracted it.
That lack of information could result in budget cuts and less control for DHSS Director Dr. Randall Williams.
Late Wednesday evening, the House budget committee voted 27 to 6 for two amendments which will cut $925,046 and 10 full-time employees from the DHSS director’s budget for 2019 and put the State Health Lab under the control of the Department of Public Safety.
The amendments were attached to HB 2010 by State Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, who, along with fellow Franklin County State Rep. Nate Tate, has repeatedly questioned DHSS about Bourbon virus testing information at Meramec State Park, but has been stonewalled.
“I want to move the lab to a department that will actually protect the public,” he said. “If the DHSS didn’t release the Bourbon virus details, how the hell do I know if they are giving us info on other diseases?”
In recent weeks, Alferman, Tate and budget committee chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, have met with liaisons from Gov. Eric Greitens’ office and Speaker of the House Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, regarding their perceived obstruction by DHSS on this matter.
“We’re not punishing anyone here,” Alferman said. “We just want more information. A state employee has died from this (virus) and the public has the right to know. We’ve been asking for this for the past five weeks. They (DHSS) could easily resolve this by divulging the requested information. Put it in a document and point to it!”
Alferman stressed the amended budget cuts are solely to the director’s office and will in no way affect any services taxpayers receive from DHSS.
Williams was absent from the meeting Wednesday and was instead in Washington, D.C. Questions from several committee members were fielded by DHSS Deputy Director Celesta Hargraves and the acting director of the Division of Community and Public Health, Kerri Tesreau.
Williams’ absence was questioned by Fitzpatrick and State Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, who stated the director should have been there to defend his department and nothing out of state was more important than the business of Missouri.
“The director is the boss,” Rone said. “He knew this was going to be brought up. Why isn’t he here? It’s not right the director isn’t here taking these questions.”
Tesreau told the committee the Centers for Disease Control had informed DHSS of two new Bourbon virus cases in Kansas, one in Oklahoma and one in Missouri, but she would not give any specifics on the Missouri case or how exactly she got the information.
“These are horrible, ridiculous answers,” Fitzpatrick told Tesreau. “Quit telling us things we are not asking for. It seems like you are doing anything you can to make this more difficult.”
Since lawmakers began their inquiries, DHSS has cited Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws to protect patient privacy.
In this case DHSS says the testing pool was so small that releasing information on the actual number or if anyone had tested positive, they would be easily identified since only park employees were eligible to volunteer for testing.
Fitzgerald added cutting the budget was a way to exert pressure on the DHSS.
“It’s not a great thing to do, but we have to do it,” he said. “This department doesn’t need to exist.”
According to documents received from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Meramec State Park employed 10 full-time and 25 seasonal staff in 2017.
“We have no idea how many employees were tested or how many may have tested positive,” Alferman said.
The second amendment to HB 2010 passed by the committee involved moving control of the state health department from DHSS to the department of Public Safety along with its $12.3 million annual budget.
Alferman assured the committee all staff and operations for the health lab would remain the same, but the leadership at the top would be different in hopes they would be more proactive in informing the public of potential threats.
“The DHSS has not adequately addressed this as a public safety issue,” Alferman said. “So, we are moving the lab to a department that will address it properly.”
Alferman added that he looks forward to hearing from the DHSS director and the floor debate by the full House and eventually the Senate members.
An email request to DHSS spokesperson Sara O’Connor on Thursday for comments on Williams’ absence from the meeting and the budget cuts was not replied to.
The general assembly will be on spring break next week and the HB 2010, along with several other appropriation bills, may not be voted on by the full House until March 27.