JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers frustrated about lack of information about a sometimes deadly virus have slashed the state health department's budget.
The House Budget Committee this past week approved eliminating 10 staffers in the Department of Health and Senior Services' director's office and cutting the administration's budget roughly in half.
The budgeters also proposed moving oversight of a laboratory that tests for diseases from the health department to the Department of Public Safety.
The move comes after Republican Vice-Chairman Rep. Justin Alferman, of Hermann, and other lawmakers have spent weeks asking for data on the number of people who have tested positive for antibodies for the Bourbon virus. Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died from complications of the virus last summer after an infected tick bit her.
The virus was first discovered in 2014 after a Bourbon County man in eastern Kansas contracted flu-like symptoms and later died after being bitten by ticks. There's relatively little known about the virus so far because there have been so few reported cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Department of Health and Senior Services has resisted providing testing information, arguing that releasing the data could lead to violations of patient privacy. In response, Alferman pledged "painful cuts" if the agency doesn't give the numbers.
"I can simply not accept the department's answer of, 'No, don't worry. It's not a big deal. Take our word for it,'" Alferman said. "The public should know. We had a state employee of the Missouri parks department pass away from this disease, and the department refuses to give us answers."
Alferman said he had not been contacted by anyone from the department as of Friday afternoon since the proposed cuts were approved by the committee. A call seeking comment from the Department of Health and Senior Services was not immediately returned Friday.
Some House Democratic budgeters raised concerns about the impact the funding cuts could have on state health department services. Celesta Hartgraves, acting deputy director of the agency, told the committee this week that cutting administrative staff would likely lead to less oversight of abuse in senior services.
"I understand that this is a way to exert pressure," said Democratic Rep. Peter Merideth, of St. Louis. "My question remains: Who suffers from this choice?"
It's still early in the budgeting process, and the proposal still needs approval by the full House and Senate. That means there's time left, if lawmakers choose, to restore the cuts before sending the spending plan to Gov. Eric Greitens for approval.