Missouri’s top health official, the face of the effort to end abortions at the only clinic in the state that performs them, has generated controversy since taking the helm of the Missouri department after a sometimes tumultuous tenure at a similar job in North Carolina.
As director of the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, Dr. Randall Williams oversees the agency that licenses health care facilities, tracks the spread of disease and is now setting up the state’s medical marijuana program. Each of those services has spawned disputes in Missouri, with the most recent involving the political storm surrounding the move to close the state’s Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis.
Williams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in response to written questions that he anticipated criticism when he took the job.
"Our job is to ensure the nearly 4,000 licensed health facilities are complying with current Missouri laws and regulations," Williams said. "As for feedback, both positive and negative, I try to use it to help make us better at serving the people of Missouri."
Williams is at the front of a debate that coincides with Republican Gov. Mike Parson signing legislation last month that will prohibit women from terminating pregnancies after eight weeks except in medical emergencies.
Williams, 62, did not address his own views on abortion, saying only, "Abortion is legal in Missouri, and I want it to be safe."
The 62-year-old obstetrician said he delivered more than 2,000 babies while in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, from 1989 to 2015. North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory named him health director for his state in 2015. Williams came to Missouri in 2017 as former Gov. Eric Greitens assembled his cabinet.
The health department is in a dispute with Planned Parenthood over renewal of the clinic’s license to perform abortions. The department conducted a two-month investigation at the clinic and outlined 30 deficiencies. The state says the clinic has addressed only a handful to its satisfaction.
Planned Parenthood has accused the administration of politicizing state health regulations to restrict abortion access.
Williams said politics have nothing to do with his department’s decision to revoke the clinic’s license.
Williams has sparred with Missouri lawmakers on several occasions. Last year, House budget writers scolded him for bungling a program that helps get stroke and heart attack patients to the most appropriate facility in the shortest amount of time.
That dust-up came after Parson vetoed $153,000 from the program, setting off fears the program might be discontinued. Williams said the veto was a way to force hospitals to pay more to fund the program. He and the governor played down potential problems, arguing that their maneuver would not result in a break in service. Lawmakers said they were misled about the intent of the veto.
Williams has also been accused several times of being secretive. Citing confidentiality laws, he refused to release information about an outbreak of the tick-borne Bourbon virus. Lawmakers responded by cutting eight positions in his agency’s budget.
Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce found the health department violated open records laws when it refused to release lab tests of a liquid thrown at St. Louis County police officers during 2017 protests sparked by the acquittal of white former police Officer Jason Stockley in the fatal shooting of black suspect Anthony Lamar Smith. The judge ordered the release of the results and told the state to pay the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which sought the records, $10,754 in fines and legal fees. The liquid was identified as apple cider vinegar.
That ruling came two days after the Post-Dispatch sued the agency to obtain records of applicants seeking to sell and grow medical marijuana in Missouri. Circuit Judge Daniel R. Green ruled in the Post-Dispatch’s favor.
The health department also eliminated geographic details from its reporting of West Nile virus cases, citing privacy concerns.
"One of our agency’s top priorities is to follow the law and provide transparency and access to public information while using an abundance of caution to follow the law and protect confidential information," Williams said.
Williams has faced similar controversies in North Carolina.
In 2016, North Carolina’s toxicologist testified in a lawsuit that Williams and other environmental officials attempted to "play down the risk" of coal ash contamination of drinking wells by rescinding a do-not-drink notice. The toxicologist said the state was telling people the water was safe when it knew it wasn’t.
Williams said he rescinded the warning notices because they were stirring up unwarranted fears.
That dispute led to the resignation of at least one North Carolina health official, who said she couldn’t support how Williams had downplayed the risks.
He was unanimously confirmed by the Missouri Senate.