SC mental health advocates caution lawmakers against bill to break up DHEC, combine other agencies

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Published: May. 2, 2022 at 7:58 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The next two weeks could be make-or-break for a bill that would break up the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, or DHEC.

The legislation, S.2, passed the state Senate with unanimous support in March, but it is now meeting opposition as it works its way through the House of Representatives.

Sponsors of this bill have held that DHEC, overseeing the state’s health and environmental control operations, has become unwieldy and ineffective at times.

But a handful of other state agencies would also be involved in the massive overhaul proposed in the reorganization.

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. The directors of both agencies would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, the same process through which DHEC’s director is installed.

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.

Mental health advocates are urging lawmakers to leave the Department of Mental Health out of this plan.

“If it’s not broke, please don’t fix it, and it’s not broke at the Department of Mental Health,” Pee Dee Mental Health Center Board Member Frances Feagin said.

“If other agencies need fixing, fix them. Please fix them. The Department of Mental Health doesn’t need fixing,” Columbia Area Mental Health Center Board Member Gene Green echoed.

Advocates told a panel of House members that they are concerned with how much this reorganization would cost and that it could shift money away from mental health services.

“You’re going to tell me that we’re going to spend millions upon millions upon millions of dollars when we can’t fund the agencies we have now and get our employees taken care of that care of our people every day in this state,” Lexington County Community Mental Health Center Board Member Darren Rogers said.

The Department of Mental Health’s state director, Dr. Kenneth Rogers, told lawmakers his department did not have an official stance on this bill, as did the heads of every other agency that would be affected by the restructuring.

But he asked them to consider that right now, the department is already dealing with a rise in need for mental health services, especially for kids.

“There is going to be a huge, one-time cost at the beginning of this merger that will probably take money away from that mission that we have as a department to be able to actually serve the mental health needs of the citizens of South Carolina, and that is a huge issue for us,” Rogers said, saying they were also worried that the visibility of the services they offer could be reduced by moving them from a standalone agency to one under a much larger department.

House members on a Ways and Means subcommittee that advanced the bill responded that they do not want to see services reduced or eliminated.

“We want to figure out a way we can be more efficient and do more for those folks, and that may ultimately be leaving the Department of Mental Health out of this restructuring. It may be putting things into the Department of Mental Health that aren’t there now,” Rep. Bruce Bannister, R – Greenville, said.

DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said his department is prepared to enact any changes the General Assembly makes.

“We do believe that mental health and substance abuse are two of the top public health issues and crises facing our state today and probably will be for the foreseeable future,” Simmer said. “As a result, we are convinced that bringing public health, mental health, and substance abuse together in one agency will help improve the health of South Carolinians across the state.”

Last week, a House subcommittee voted to send the bill up to the committee level after amending it to require the state Department of Administration assist in the transition and extending the time until the transition would need to start until the summer of 2024, instead of 2022.

Later in the week, the bill was included in a packed agenda for the full House Ways and Means Committee, but that panel did not take it up during its meeting.

The legislation would need to advance out of that committee, be debated on the House floor, and pass the House in order to reach the governor’s desk — a tight timeline with just six days left on the calendar in the current legislative session, which ends May 12.

If the bill does not get to Gov. Henry McMaster by then, it dies and would need to be refiled at the beginning of next year.

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