South Carolina House panel slows down bill to split DHEC

Published: May. 5, 2022 at 7:35 PM EDT|Updated: May. 5, 2022 at 8:03 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Mental health advocates are “ecstatic” after South Carolina lawmakers changed a bill Thursday that had them worried about how it could impact the state’s mental health services.

But those changes, coming to legislation that would break up the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, are not a done deal just yet.

The House Ways and Means Committee advanced a version of S.2 to the House floor Thursday, after amending the bill with significant changes that would pump the brakes on its progress.

“If we’re going to create a new agency and radically shift the healthcare agencies in this state, we need to be prudent and make sure that we’re doing the right thing and we take our time to get it right,” Speaker of the House – Elect Murrell Smith, R – Sumter and the outgoing chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said.

Changes the panel approved include the formation of a 10-member study committee. Along with the South Carolina Department of Administration, it would be tasked with discerning the best way to split and restructure DHEC, with the department remaining as it is until then.

The version of the bill the Senate passed in March did not include this board’s creation or the involvement of the Department of Administration, and it required the entire transition be complete by June of 2023.

However, under the version of the bill that will head to the House floor, the Department of Administration would need to provide an initial report of its recommendations to the committee and the General Assembly by Jan. 15, 2023, and its final report would be due two months later. The committee would then need to submit a report of recommendations to the General Assembly by Jan. 15, 2024.

The bill does not outline by when a transition would need to be started or completed, or when the General Assembly would need to determine which agencies would be involved.

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

Under the version passed in the Senate, 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.

But after hearing from advocates concerned about the Department of Mental Health’s inclusion in this split, the committee decided Thursday to take it out of the plan for now.

“That’s something we need to study and we need to do our due diligence on making sure that we recognize whether that’s in the best interest in the citizens of this state or not,” Smith said.

“The House believes in transparency and openness, and there will be hearings and opportunities for the public to be heard on this issue,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D – Orangeburg, added.

Mental health advocates said if this study committee does come to fruition, they will keep fighting to keep the Department of Mental Health out of the restructuring plan.

Among their worries, they testified to House members that they were concerned with how much this reorganization would cost and that it could shift money away from mental health services.

“We just thought that was very important to keep those direct services going to those folks that need them, especially in this time of so many mental health needs,” NAMI South Carolina Executive Director Bill Lindsey said.

If the bill does pass the House next week, it would return to the Senate for senators’ consideration to accept the House’s changes or revert to their version of the bill.

“We hope senators will recognize that something of this magnitude should be studied further,” Cobb-Hunter said.

The Department of Mental Health’s state director, Dr. Kenneth Rogers, previously 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 restructure.

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.

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 during a subcommittee meeting. “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.”

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