Lawmakers frustrated at slow response to questions on Missouri vaccine plan

Calls for greater transparency have percolated since the start of the state’s vaccine rollout, and they’ve only grown louder

By: and - March 12, 2021 7:00 am
Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services testifies before the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention

Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services testifies before the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

Bipartisan frustration over delays and barriers to information about COVID-19 vaccinations boiled over Thursday in the House Budget Committee.

And after state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, questioned why it has been so difficult to even get the Department of Health and Senior Services to provide a date by which it will respond to a Feb. 17 letter from a group of House Democrats, committee Chairman Cody Smith called the delays unacceptable. 

Smith, R-Carthage, sent a message to all state agencies — respond to lawmakers in days, not weeks.

“It is my expectation that all members of the General Assembly be responded to in a timely manner when they ask questions and ask for information from departments,” Smith said. “There should be no three-week delay, no four-week delay for any questions that I can think of.”

Lawmakers meet from early January to mid-May each year. When the budget committee finishes its work on a spending plan, there will be about five weeks left for lawmakers to move the rest of the way through to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. 

Rep. Cody Smith
House Budget Chair Cody Smith, R-Carthage, introduces HB14 on Nov. 10, 2020 (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications).

“We need information to make timely decisions and we need it as soon as it can be provided,” Smith said. “What we are doing is also very important and we expect timely responses from all departments to all members of the General Assembly. Full stop.”

Lawmakers have been calling for greater transparency since the start of the state’s vaccine rollout, and those calls have only grown louder.

When lawmakers frame their inquiries as Sunshine Law requests, it can bring demands from departments that lawmakers pay for the privilege of seeing documents. In another case, when DHSS did provide information, it left out important details about how to interpret it.

The support from Smith was “crucial” for showing that the frustration with executive agencies is not a partisan issue, Merideth said Thursday afternoon. It means that there are ways to show the departments they must respect those requests, he said. 

“If they won’t answer us, we are the committee that has their purse strings,” Merideth said of the budget committee. 

The Feb. 17 letter, addressed to Randall Williams, DHSS director, and Adam Crumbliss, director of the Division of Community and Public Health, asked 10 questions about vaccine distribution.

Signed by House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, and the five Democratic members of the Health and Mental Health Policy Committee, the letter asked the department to provide the basis for how it allocated vaccine doses among hospitals, local health departments and mass clinics.

The letter also included requests for information on: 

  • The contract cost and selection of Deloitte, a consulting firm that has identified vaccine deserts in urban areas;
  • How vaccines would be administered in state prisons;
  • Plans for wide community outreach by the hospitals allocated 53 percent of vaccine doses.

“They have yet to get a response from the department,” Merideth, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, told Alex Tuttle, chief of DHSS’s Office of Governmental Policy and Legislation, during the Thursday hearing. 

The only thing the lawmakers who signed the letter have heard is that a response “is coming soon,” Merideth said. 

“Why can’t we get answers to these questions?” he said.

Like he did on many questions asked during Thursday’s hearing, Tuttle deferred on the answer. He would get with Williams and Crumbliss, he said, “and make sure we get an answer.”

That wasn’t good enough, Merideth said. 

“I appreciate that, but that’s what we have been told repeatedly,” he said. “And it has now been nearly a month, in the midst of vaccine rollout being the No. 1 priority for most of our constituents in this state, and we can’t get answers?”

Lisa Cox, DHSS spokeswoman, did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the legislative criticism. 

COVID vaccine funds

Rep. Peter Merideth
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

The exchange between Merideth and Tuttle came during the committee’s consideration of supplemental spending requests to use money made available by Congress under the late December COVID-19 relief bill.

DHSS is asking to use $10.2 million of $55 million coming to the state to support vaccination efforts.

The request, Tuttle said, is the amount DHSS thinks it can spend by June 30 for vaccine training, media programs to educate the public and outreach to the homeless, the homebound and communities with limited internet access and other resources.

That upset some on the committee, who asked why DHSS isn’t moving faster to spend the money while the urgency for vaccinations is high. Waiting until after July 1 to spend the bulk of it seems like a mistake, lawmakers said.

“This is the most critical time to get vaccines in arms,” said state Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City. “When I look at $55 million sitting there and only $10.2 million being requested, that is not enough to support our community partners.”

The money only arrived about three weeks ago, Tuttle said, and DHSS is working on its plan. Specifically, he said the department is working on a draft plan for outreach to the homeless and homebound.

That drew a rebuke from Merideth.

“We are months into vaccine distribution now,” he said. “Why are we just saying we are looking at ways to get this to homeless people, we are looking at ways to get this to homebound people?”

Later Thursday, the state’s Advisory Committee on Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution touched on the topic of how to reach people who are homeless. Sara Weir, an advisor hired to advocate for people with disabilities amid the state’s rollout, said a workgroup that is focused on the topic hopes to have a report ready to share by next week.

Legislative complaints

The complaints Thursday by members of the House Budget Committee aren’t the first time DHSS has faced criticism from lawmakers trying to obtain information about the vaccine rollout.

On Feb. 26, Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, sent a records request to DHSS seeking the number doses sent to a mass vaccination event last month in Leopold — population 65.

The event drew controversy because the state allocated nearly 2,000 vaccine doses for it, more than half of which went unused.

Unsicker also asked for internal communications about the event and information about unused doses.

She was eventually told she would not receive a response until March 26 at the earliest. And to get it, she would be billed $43 an hour for research services, $22.33 per hour for clerical support and 10 cents a page for the records themselves.

“They don’t share records with us anymore than they share with anybody else it seems like,” Unsicker said. “So, (it’s) kind of frustrating.”

In response to a Feb. 9 request from state Sen. Jill Schupp for vaccines distributed by county, DHSS provided data that showed in the first two months of Missouri’s vaccine distribution, Cape Girardeau County received enough vaccine to cover over half of its population. The data showed some other counties — both rural and urban — didn’t have enough doses for even 5 percent of their residents.

For Schupp, the data appeared to confirm her concerns that disparities existed in distribution across counties and regions.

But when asked by The Independent about the data, Robert Knodell, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mike Parson, provided a list of caveats that were not provided to Schupp. Among them was the fact that the data didn’t include doses sent to nursing homes and that it left out over a hundred redistributions between facilities and counties that would skew the totals.

Schupp said she’s trying to make sure that the department is carrying out what it says it’s doing — like allocating vaccine proportionally by region.

“This is not easy, and I recognize that,” Schupp said. “What I want to know is that, as this rollout continues and as we learn things, that the state is nimble enough and smart enough to make adjustments and to try to level the playing field across the state.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covers education, health care and the legislature. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She most recently covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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