S.C. senators renew push to split up DHEC

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Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 7:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina senators are renewing a push to split up a major state agency after their efforts fell short last year.

A Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee has held two hearings, with a third scheduled for next week, on S.399, a bill that would dissolve the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

From coordinating the state’s pandemic response in recent years to issuing food safety permits to regulating dams, the responsibilities assigned to DHEC are expansive.

But state lawmakers have characterized the approximately 3,500-employee department as unwieldy and, at times, ineffective.

The bill 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, DMH, and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, DAODAS, both of which would cease to exist.

The heads of both DMH and DAODAS told senators in a hearing Wednesday that under this plan, they believe they would still be able to meet the needs of the South Carolinians they serve right now as standalone agencies.

“I just think that it should be done carefully so that a merger doesn’t diminish the importance and the public perception of the importance of addictions issues,” DAODAS Director Sara Goldsby said.

Mental health advocates have concerns about a split.

“I can’t see where the legislation really enhances or makes it better for those with mental illness,” Bill Lindsey of the South Carolina branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, said.

In this bill, 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, the Department of Mental Health’s responsibility to oversee veterans’ nursing homes and DHEC’s oversight of food safety programs would shift to the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Agriculture, respectively.

The state’s new Secretary of Veterans Affairs said no one in his 48-employee agency has a background in nursing home management, and he told senators he doesn’t believe his agency is the right one to oversee this.

“Taking a field that’s very complex, very clinically focused and moving it to a department that hasn’t had experience is going to require some mitigation,” SCDVA Secretary Todd McCaffrey said, adding his staff estimates they would have to hire 28 additional new employees to take over this responsibility and need two to three years to prepare.

Senators say they plan to hold at least one more meeting on this bill next week Thursday.

This same bill passed the Senate last year but died in a House of Representatives committee before it could get to the governor’s desk.

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