Dismantling DHEC: South Carolina considers fate of its huge health agency

Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 12:18 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Public health workers in South Carolina have been tasked with keeping the state safe for 143 years, ever since a health board was created after a yellow fever outbreak in 1878.

Now, as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic, legislators are trying to break their agency apart.

South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control is responsible not only for vaccine distribution, but things like pollution permits for coal plants.

It’s a sprawling agency with nearly 4,000 workers.

Senate President Harvey Peeler would like to break it up, combining the state’s health and mental health services in one agency and the environmental duties in another agency.

Gov. Henry McMaster also supports dismantling DHEC.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic surged into public consciousness, the agency has taken a high-profile role.

But it’s faced criticism ranging from lack of transparency to the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Among the complaints are that it’s too large and unmanageable and lacks direct oversight from elected officials.

The new director, Dr. Edward Simmer, asked for a year to fix the agency.

It’s been less than two weeks since the Senate confirmed him for the job, but lawmakers aren’t cutting him any slack.

Dr. Edward Simmer
Dr. Edward Simmer(WRDW)

Having gotten no commitment for more time, he’s started setting priorities for dealing with the pandemic.

Among the controversies faced by the agency is whether teachers should be moved ahead in the line for COVID-19 vaccinations. Teacher groups are vocally in favor of that, while the governor is against it.

Simmer has said he’d love to move teachers up in line, but not enough vaccine is available for that.

Simmer’s other priorities include boosting confidence in the coronavirus vaccine and getting people immunized. For that, he says working with community partners is key.

And then, he says, DHEC needs to take the vaccine to them, “rather than asking them to come to us. "

Simmer says the agency is still working on a new online system that should simplify the vaccine sign-up process.

The federal scheduling system is so difficult that some rural clinics have turned to using paper and ink to track appointments, seeing that as an improvement.

But DHEC’s own system has taken longer than expected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report