S.C. Statehouse roundup: Bill aims to make it easier for hospitals to open

South Carolina Statehouse
South Carolina Statehouse(WRDW)
Published: Jan. 14, 2022 at 12:14 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Lawmakers want to make a major change to South Carolina’s health care system that they say will make care more affordable and accessible.

Senate Bill 290, which currently has bipartisan backing, would repeal South Carolina’s Certificate of Need, or CON, law. The Palmetto State is one of more than 30 states with this type of legislation in place at this point.

Under a CON law, if someone wants to build a new hospital, or if an existing hospital wants to expand or even purchase new, larger pieces of medical machinery, they must get approval from the state through the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

As part of this process, existing hospitals can block other hospitals’ projects.

“Imagine if we had a CON in the grocery industry, and Farmer Smith decided that he wanted to sell corn or tomatoes or other produce. What if Publix or Harris Teeter could raise their hand and say, ‘I object,’ and block that project?” Dr. Rob Brown, an ENT surgeon from Greenville, said.

Brown is among a group of doctors backing lawmakers for this change, which they said will allow physicians to open more facilities outside the umbrella of larger hospital groups.

Critics of the CON law said the legislation has led to more healthcare monopolies and higher costs for patients.

“Repealing this law is the only thing that makes sense,” Dr. Marcelo Hochman, a facial plastic surgeon from Charleston County, said, noting people wanting to build hospitals would still need to go about being properly licensed and appropriately financed.

Gov. Henry McMaster suspended the state’s CON law in 2020 to allow hospitals to add more beds and care for an influx of patients during COVID spikes.

“We did not fall apart. We did just fine last year,” Sen. Penry Gustafson, R – Kershaw, said.

The South Carolina Hospital Association believes the Certificate of Need law needs to be amended but should not be completely tossed.

“Certificate of Need rules are there to protect patients. CON rules protect access to care in rural communities and for low-income households,” SCHA Executive Vice President Christian Soura said.

Soura said the law should be changed to reduce the amount of time it takes to get decisions and cut down on the number of projects that require CON approval, among other adjustments.

“We went and looked at the last five years’ worth of Certificate of Need applications, and if the hospital community’s reform proposal had been in place, we would’ve been able to cut the number of CON applications by more than two-thirds,” Soura said.

Supporters of the CON repeal argued the move would improve healthcare accessibility in rural areas.

Senators began debating the CON bill Wednesday in what they expect will be a multi-day debate that was scheduled to resume the next day. But Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said conversations about the legislation would likely be happening over the weekend, so senators will pick the debate up when they return to the State House on Tuesday.

If the Senate does pass S. 290, the bill would head to the House of Representatives, where it would need to be approved three more times before heading to the governor’s desk.

Bill would create school voucher-like program

COLUMBIA, S.C. - On the second day of the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers took up a controversial education bill that would give families money from the state for their children to attend private schools.

A Senate education subcommittee heard public comment Wednesday on S. 935, which would establish Education Savings Accounts, also referred to as Education Scholarship Accounts, similar to school voucher programs in other states.

Testimony lasted for nearly two hours, with most of the morning’s speakers urging senators to stop the bill from advancing any further, saying it would be detrimental to South Carolina’s students and teachers, the majority of whom attend or work in public schools.

“If passed, this would further degrade a struggling system of public education, and as the system collapses, we will see young people suffer,” teacher Todd Scholl said.

Through Education Savings Accounts, the state would give families money each quarter to pay predominantly for nonpublic school tuition, with other eligible expenses as well, such as textbooks, tutoring services, and exam fees.

Families would receive an amount equal to the state average of how much public schools receive from the state per student.

“When funds are removed from the public sector and granted to private schools, the students enrolled in public schools will, in many instances, be denied quality academic programs,” retired teacher Marvin Byers said.

Under the bill, there would be income limits for determining family eligibility.

Opponents argued the program would take critical funding away from public schools.

Among the groups opposed are the South Carolina School Boards Association and three teacher advocacy organizations, the Palmetto State Teachers Association, the South Carolina Education Association, and SCforEd.

“Education Scholarship Account vouchers are untested, unaccountable, and unaffordable. They’re dangerous for our public school system here,” Colleen O’Connell of the South Carolina Education Association said.

Senators did not vote on advancing the bill during their meeting Wednesday, with Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, saying they would try to schedule another subcommittee meeting next week to discuss the legislation before taking a vote.

More bills opposing vaccine mandates introduced in S.C. House

COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina’s state capital is buzzing once again, as legislators gather in Columbia for a new session.

Lawmakers introduced a couple of new bills in the House of Representatives to tackle COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

Rep. Russell Fry (R-Horry) is among those backing some of the latest installments of a GOP-led initiative to take vaccine mandates off the table in the Palmetto State.

One of the bills introduced to the S.C. House Tuesday is the South Carolina Vaccination Rights Act of 2022. It’s backed by dozens of other Republicans as well, including area Reps. Heather Ammons Crawford (R-Horry), Jay Jordan Jr. (R-Florence), and Phillip D. Lowe (R-Florence).

The measure would, in part, make it an unlawful discriminatory practice in South Carolina to refuse someone a job, education, and other services and opportunities, on the basis that they refused to provide their vaccination status or an immunity passport.

An employer or government entity would not be discriminating as long as they only recommended, not required, an employee gets the shot, per the proposed legislation.

“This is a very inclusive country, it always has been, and it’s one of our strengths,” Fry said. “But what you’re seeing, unfortunately, in certain cities and states all across this country is a willingness to embrace a mandate, which is really creating two different types of people, two different types of opportunities.”

Another bill introduced Tuesday tackled mandates specifically aimed at first responders in the public sector.

Per H. 4561, the measure would prohibit compelling a law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic to get the COVID-19 vaccine. If a first responder received any backlash for not getting the shot, like a demotion or termination, they would have to right to bring a cause of action against their employer.

Plan to radically change U.S. House districts proposed

COLUMBIA - State senators now have another map to consider just when the South Carolina General Assembly appears ready to finish drawing new U.S. House districts.

This latest map would make radical changes favorable to Democrats in all seven congressional districts.

South Carolina currently sends six Republicans and one Democrat to the U.S. House.

This latest map would create two districts with majorities of voters who picked Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, and a third district where Trump won only narrowly.

The South Carolina House is expected to vote Wednesday on GOP proposals that would lock in the status quo.

Senators debate ending state control of expansion, equipment

COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina senators have started what will likely be a debate over several days about whether to get rid of a state law that requires hospitals and other medical clinics to get permission to expand or buy most major medical equipment.

The original goal of the Certificate of Need program was to make sure medical care was spread around the state and make sure hospitals didn’t end up in overspending because of competition.

But supporters of a bill to end the program say those limits aren’t needed with huge health care conglomerates.

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