S.C. lawmakers again weigh breakup of massive health agency

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Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 6:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS)- The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control oversees everything from coordinating the state’s pandemic response in recent years to issuing food safety permits to regulating dams.

But some lawmakers believe the agency is unwieldy and unmanageable – and they say government needs to run more efficiently.

They want to break up the agency.

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

But it’s back this year.

It 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.

The heads of both of those agencies told senators in a hearing Wednesday that under this plan, they believe they’d 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,” said Sara Goldsby, director of the drug and alcohol abuse agency.

DHEC’s environmental control function would become 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 current responsibility to oversee veterans’ nursing homes and DHEC’s responsibility to oversee food safety programs would shift to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Agriculture, respectively.

The state’s new secretary of veterans affairs says no one in his agency has a background in nursing home management – and 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,” Secretary Todd McCaffrey said.

Senators are holding hearings now on this bill – the first step in the legislative process.

The bill would need to get several more approvals to reach the governor’s desk.