JEFFERSON CITY — A showdown between legislators and the state health department over a deadly virus likely will cost eight employees their jobs.
A legislative committee Monday night slashed funding in the Health and Senior Services’ director’s office that equates to eight layoffs, over the objections of some lawmakers who said the move was excessive.
The cuts are a result of a dispute between members of the House Budget Committee and the department over information related to the Bourbon virus. The deadly tick-borne virus killed a state parks employee in 2017.
Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, had requested the number of people who tested positive for antibodies for the Bourbon virus earlier this year. The department refused, saying the information was a closed record, citing both Missouri State Statute and federal HIPAA laws, which protect patients’ medical records.
In an interview earlier this session with the Missourian, Alferman — whose district includes the park where the worker contracted the virus — said he can’t tell his constituents what kind of threat, if any, the Bourbon virus poses.
“I have to go back home to my constituents, where we had a state park employee die from this,” Alferman said, “and when they say: ‘What’s the infection rate? What is my likelihood that I’m going to catch this in Franklin County?’ I have to tell them I have no information. Nada. Zip. Zero.”
The cuts were included in the original version of the House budget more than 10 weeks ago. During Monday’s conference committee meeting — where senators and representatives meet to agree on a final version of the budget — Alferman said the department hasn’t met with him or House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, about the cuts.
“Either they don’t care, or they’re already receiving enough funding to where they do not believe that it is adequate to come and talk to the members of the budget committee,” Alferman said. “I’m not an unreasonable person. I’m asking for any information as it relates to the Bourbon virus in the state of Missouri.”
Fitzpatrick said the department has not complied with a subpoena the House issued. He said if the department complies with the request by Tuesday night, there’s a chance the cuts could be restored.
“They’ll have the opportunity to earn that back,” he said.
Fitzpatrick’s office said Tuesday at 5 p.m. that the department had not provided the data. A phone call to the department Tuesday was not returned.
On Monday night, department director Randall Williams testified to the budget conference committee, reiterating that the records were closed. Williams also attended a Jan. 31 hearing when the budget was first presented to the committee and a Feb. 20 session of the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, as well as the Senate Appropriations hearing, according to a statement from the health department.*
“I would respectfully point out that we presented to Rep. Fitzpatrick and Rep. Alferman the (documents) 10 weeks ago that outlined in great detail the reasons both why we were pursuing the public policy that we were ... and why we were not able to legally give the information,” Williams said.
Williams was referencing printouts of Missouri Statute and HIPAA laws that the department had highlighted and given to Alferman and Fitzpatrick.
“In providing no information, we did provide information about why we had the policy, and as to why we couldn’t give you the other information,” Williams said.
“A printed-out statute with a highlighter is not giving information, respectfully,” Alferman replied.
Williams’ argument to the committee was that the department can’t release the information because the sample size of the antibody testing was so small that even the aggregate data could identify those tested. The department previously confirmed that two people in Missouri contracted the virus, one of those being the employee who died in 2017. There have been five confirmed cases of Bourbon virus nationwide, according to the department.
The Missourian submitted its own records request with the department, asking for the same antibody information Fitzpatrick and Alferman were seeking. At first the department said it would take a month to get the records. Then, it came back and said the records were closed under Missouri Statute 192.067.
Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assisted the department with testing and tick collection last summer, the Missourian also submitted a request to the agency asking for the same records. However, the CDC would not release the numbers and said such requests should be made to the state health department.
The cuts will affect the director’s office in the department, whose staff mostly consists of lawyers and secretaries.
“We purposely went after the director’s office for these cuts, because there’s a lot of different divisions in the department,” Alferman said. “I don’t want someone not getting senior services or assistance because the director and his office aren’t acting appropriately.”
The department cuts — originally proposed at 10 staff layoffs — were a point of contention between senators and representatives Monday night.
Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, cautioned against the cuts, saying they went too far.
“Chairman, this is a drastic, drastic cut,” Hegeman said. “I think this is well overboard with what’s going on there ... I don’t think that this is an appropriate cut.”
Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, agreed, saying that if the department believed it would violate the law by providing the records, the committee should defer to the department.
“I think this is excessive, frankly, removing half the budget,” Curls said.
After a short recess and negotiation, legislators settled on a compromise of cutting eight staff instead of 10.
The budget still needs approval from the full House and Senate and must be delivered to the governor by Friday.
Because the legislature has power over executive departments’ budgets, funding cuts is one tool that can be used to either punish or seek information from a department.
“As legislators, we reach a point where the only control we have over some of these departments is the power of the purse,” Alferman said.
The uncooperative nature of the health department in this situation is something Alferman has rarely encountered.
“I have never seen this amount of gross ineptitude or unwillingness to work with legislators in my entire time down here,” Alferman said. “It leads me to believe that there is something they are hiding.”