Missouri lawmakers 'punish' health department over virus data

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JEFFERSON CITY — A committee of Missouri House lawmakers slashed the budget for the state health department's administration for not providing information about a virus that killed a state employee.

On Wednesday, the House Budget Committee “overwhelmingly” voted to halve the Department of Health and Senior Services director’s budget. According to committee Vice Chairman Justin Alferman, the committee voted 29-6 to reduce 10 “full-time equivalents.” This would include the office attorneys, director, assistant director and legislative liaison.

This decision is in response to the department’s refusal to release information about the Bourbon virus.

Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died last summer from complications from the Bourbon virus. An infected tick bit Wilson in Franklin County, which falls into Rep. Alferman’s district.

“We should be doing everything that we can to make sure this doesn’t happen to a single other Missourian in the state, and I don’t think we’re doing that,” Alferman said.

Alferman said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested for the virus. However, the health department refused to release the results, claiming it would break patient privacy laws.

Alferman said he does not want access to any information that could violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“At no point do I want any personally identifiable information to be leaked to the public,” Alferman said. “But simply telling us the number of infections is not a HIPAA violation.”

Knowledge about the number of infections could inform Missourians of their own risk of contracting the potentially deadly virus.

This situation reminds Alferman of a previous issue with the health department’s “obscuring transparency.”

“This is reminiscent exactly of a couple of years ago with the Lake of the Ozarks and the E. coli outbreak, and the department not releasing it before a holiday weekend," Alferman said.

The House Budget Committee met with the health department Monday night. Alferman is surprised by the reaction- or lack thereof- from the health department.

“It was made painfully obvious to us that they were not going to budge,” Alferman said. “I told them, this is not a threat, it’s a promise. Your budget’s going to get cut.”

The budget cuts allow the legislature to check the Department of Health and Senior Services. According to Alferman, the cuts would not affect any individual who receives services from the health department.

“It does painfully affect the bureaucracy in the department that is purposely hiding information from the public,” Alferman said.

Alferman said it would not be fair to take services away from Missourians.

“Individuals who are benefiting from the Department of Health, you know, I’m not wanting to punish them, but I am wanting to punish the department absolutely,” Alferman said.

If the health department agrees to release its information on the Bourbon virus, Alferman said he is willing to restore the budget cuts. The bill will have at least two more weeks in the House of Representatives. If passed, the bill will go to the Missouri Senate.

“I look forward to the department having to defend their decisions with the Senate,” Alferman said. “Because every time they’ve done so, they don’t look very good.”

KOMU 8 News attempted to contact the Department of Health and Senior Services multiple times, even visited its office. No one was available for comment.