JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri lawmakers are threatening to make "painful cuts" to a state department's funding for refusing to release information about a virus that killed a state employee last year.
Republican Rep. Justin Alferman first proposed Wednesday at a House budget committee hearing a 10 percent budget reduction for administrative staff at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Republican Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick then threatened even deeper cuts if the committee doesn't get answers, the Washington Missourian reported.
"The cuts are nothing that will hurt anyone receiving services or benefits from the DHSS," Alferman said. "But they are going to hurt the administration and bureaucracy continuing to obstruct information."
Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died last summer from complications of the rare Bourbon virus after being bitten by an infected tick. Lawmakers wanted to know whether others have tested positive for the virus, concerned that others could contract the disease at state parks. But the department said releasing such information would violate patient privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
"I want to be perfectly clear, this is not a veiled threat, this is a promise," Alferman said. "Just from the department not releasing any information makes me suspicious. Let's not negate the fact we had a state employee pass away from this disease. I think they (DHSS) are hiding behind an interpretation."
On Thursday, Alferman and state Rep. Nate Tate of St. Clair had a closed door meeting in Jefferson City with two staff members from the governor's office. The staff members brought an email dated March 8 from the Centers for Disease Control to Ken Palermo, the administrator of the state agency's disease prevention section.
The email said only staff who worked or volunteered at the park were eligible to participate in the investigation. It said since a limited number of staff were part of the investigation, information to identify the individuals is not being disclosed.
Tate said he and Alferman aren't satisfied and expect to receive more information from the governor's office next week.