Republican leaders of a Missouri House panel have followed through on a threat to cut funding to the state health department for withholding information.
They’re members of the House Budget Committee who last week were demanding to know how many people had tested positive for the rare, but potentially deadly Bourbon virus.
Committee vice-chairman Justin Alferman of Hermann bluntly stated that the cuts were not a “veiled threat” but “a promise.”
At the time, 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.
Wednesday, the committee did just that. On a voice vote, it chopped the budget of Department Director Randall Williams’ office in half. The committee also agreed in a voice vote to move the state health lab out of the health department and into the Department of Public Safety.
The lawmakers have been seeking test numbers for the infection since Republican Representative Nate Tate of St. Clair 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.
Tate, Alferman, and Fitzpatrick have held a number of meetings with health department personnel in recent weeks. Each time, including most recently through the deputy director, the department has declined to release the information.
The agency (officially known as the Department of Health and Senior Services) 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 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.
The agency also cited state law prohibiting it from releasing the data.
Alferman and Fitzpatrick contend they’re only looking for raw numbers, not any information that would identify people.
The Budget Committee’s vote to reduce health department funding and move the health lab to another agency must still be approved by the full House and the Senate before any action can be taken.