SC lawmakers consider splitting state’s health department

Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 5:32 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2022 at 5:54 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - From coordinating the state’s pandemic response to issuing food safety permits to regulating dams, responsibilities assigned to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, or DHEC, are expansive.

But state lawmakers have characterized the approximately 3,500-employee department as unwieldy and, at times, ineffective, and an influential state senator’s push to break DHEC up is moving through the South Carolina Senate.

“[It’s] the product of many, many hours by staff, members of the Medical Affairs Committee, and people that will be impacted by this,” Sen. Harvey Peeler, R – Cherokee and the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said of the legislation. Peeler is the lead sponsor of the bill, S.2, which counts Republicans and Democrats as its co-sponsors.

S.2 would dissolve DHEC and create two new cabinet-level agencies: the Department of Behavioral and Public Health and the Department of Environmental Services.

Behavioral and Public Health would take over DHEC’s health responsibilities and subsume the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, both of which would cease to exist.

DHEC’s environmental control function would transition to the Department of Environmental Services, which would also take over the Department of Natural Resources’ current Water Resources Division.

Meanwhile, two of DHEC’s other current responsibilities, overseeing veterans’ nursing homes and food safety programs, would shift to the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Department of Agriculture, respectively.

“I think it’s a great work product in having the ability to put focus on areas that need focus and opportunities of bringing folks, that of like minds, of services like the behavioral health services together,” Senate President Thomas Alexander, R – Oconee, said.

After receiving a favorable report from a Senate subcommittee last week, the bill could face its first big vote as soon as Thursday, when the Senate Medical Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet with this legislation and several other bills on its crowded agenda. S.2 would still need the approval of the House of Representatives and Gov. Henry McMaster to go into effect.

If it becomes law, as currently written, the entire transition would need to be complete by June 30, 2023.

In a statement, DHEC said, “We stand ready to work with our partners and employees to put into place any changes to our structure should this or any other bill become law with the ultimate goal of ensuring the implementation is as seamless as possible for the people we serve and our employees.”

The new chair of the board that oversees DHEC told lawmakers earlier this month that he believes the idea behind the bill is a good one but that he would want more information on the effects of a split, such as how much it would cost or save the state financially.

S.2 would dissolve that board as well, along with the state Mental Health Commission.

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