Two Missouri lawmakers have threatened to cut the state health department’s budget if the agency fails to reveal statistics for a deadly virus.
They’re members of the House Budget Committee and they’re demanding to know how many people have tested positive for the rare, but potentially deadly Bourbon virus.
Republican committee vice-chairman Justin Alferman of Hermann didn’t mince words about the cuts. “I just want to be perfectly clear that this is not a veiled threat,” said Alferman. “It is a promise.”
Alferman said in a committee hearing he’d submit an amendment to the state budget calling for a 10% reduction in the health department’s administrative budget if the agency declined to provide the information.
Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said Alferman’s cut was pretty kind and that he would he have sliced the department’s even further. Fitzpatrick’s office stressed to Missourinet that any budget reduction wouldn’t affect services provided by the health department, but would only impact administrative items such as the salaries of management.
The issue surfaced publicly during a committee hearing when Alferman made his direct statement while members of the agency, formally known as the Department of Health and Senior Services, were present.
Previously, Republican Representative Nate Tate of St. Clair had brought his concerns to the Budget Committee’s attention. Tate’s district includes Meramec State Park, where park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died of complications from the Bourbon virus last summer after being bitten by an infected tick.
Prior to the hearing, Tate, Alferman, and Fitzpatrick met with three members of the health department, who declined to provide the test numbers.
The agency claims that divulging the number of people testing positive for the virus would be a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which guarantees the privacy of medical records.
The health department argues that since the number of people tested is less than the population of Missouri (6.14 million), revealing the information would breach the HIPAA law because it could identify those who tested positive.
During the hearing, Fitzpatrick noted he disagreed with an example given by health department members who said a reporter could identify people who tested positive by inquiring of every parks department employee. Fitzpatrick responded, “They could also lie”. His office told Missourinet that House attorneys disagree with the department’s interpretation of the law.
During the hearing, Alferman said it was inexcusable for the department to withhold information that concerns public safety. “To not have any information when an employee of the state died from this disease, and we have thousands of people going to that state park, and not to get any answers is completely unacceptable,” Alferman said.
He stated that, unlike the health department, the parks department had been helpful.
The health department told Missourinet Friday that it was preparing a statement to release early this week on it’s response to Alferman and Fitzpatrick but declined to give any details.
It instead offered its previous statements on the Bourbon virus and its response. In those statements, the department said it had conducted a follow-up investigation of the virus after the case from 2017 which killed the park employee.
The investigation was performed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health agencies.
In a release in December, the department said it had conducted blood tests and stipulated that the results of participants are protected health information and would not be released. The department did say it tested more than 7,000 ticks collected in the state park (presumably Meramec State Park) and found no evidence of Bourbon virus.
In a previous statement from September 2017, it announced the investigation had been completed while noting Bourbon virus was first discovered to cause human illness in a Bourbon County, Kansas, man in 2014. That man died as a result.
At the hearing, Democratic Representative Karla May of St. Louis said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has rules preventing the release of information because of concerns over creating panic.
Representative Alferman agreed with May but said the fact that the health department won’t release any information at all made him suspicious.
Another meeting between the three Budget Committee members – Alferman, Fitzpatrick and Tate – and the health department is set for Monday.
Fitzpatrick closed discussion on the issue in the committee hearing by indicating there could be legislative consequences if the health department refused to release its test results. “We can not have a Department of Health and Senior Services,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m cool with that too. We can go roll them into DSS (Department of Social Services) or something.”