As breakup of SC’s health and environmental agency looms, stakeholder group seeks input

·6 min read

An eclectic group that included health officials, environmental advocates and business, industry and governmental interests met last week to discuss the state of health and environmental protection in South Carolina and begin to map out how those vital services should be structured and delivered to residents in the future.

The task force to Strengthen the Health and Promote the Environment of South Carolina, or SHaPE SC, is the brainchild of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Edward Simmer, who formed the group in response to a Senate bill that would break up his agency, which some argue is too large and unwieldy to function effectively.

By bringing together a diverse collection of representatives from industries DHEC regulates, relevant advocacy groups and officials from the state agencies affected by the proposed bill, Simmer hopes to forge a new path forward for health and environmental services in South Carolina and hopefully influence the final legislative product.

“The intent here is to get a broad-based review of where we stand with both health and environmental control within the state of South Carolina and to make recommendations on how the state can best address those issues in the future,” Simmer told his agency’s governing board in early April. “Obviously this is a large part to play in the future of DHEC, but it’s larger than that, too.”

DHEC, one of the few combined health and environmental agencies in the country, is one of South Carolina’s largest departments with more than 3,000 full-time employees and about 1,000 part-time and temporary workers.

The idea of breaking up the agency, which critics argue has too much on its plate, has been discussed for years but gained momentum in recent months due to COVID-19.

Lawmakers have criticized the agency’s response to the pandemic, which has killed nearly 10,000 South Carolinians since March 2020, and the pace of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout. As of Tuesday, about 38% of eligible residents were fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gov. Henry McMaster has spoken in support of splitting up the agency and asked the General Assembly to consider restructuring DHEC during his State of the State address in January.

“The Department of Health and Environmental Control needs attention,” McMaster said. “It is a massive agency with thousands of talented, experienced employees but two different and equally complex missions — health and the environment.

“The pandemic,” he said, “has highlighted the agency’s need to move and act in a more nimble and responsive fashion.”

Bill would split DHEC into two agencies

DHEC spent much of the past year without a permanent director.

Former Director Rick Toomey went on medical leave a couple weeks into the pandemic and resigned from his post in June 2020, citing his health and wanting to spend more time with his family.

The agency’s chief counsel, Marshall Taylor, served as interim director for the next seven months until the DHEC board chose Simmer as the agency’s new leader in late December.

Simmer, a career Navy doctor who most recently worked as chief medical officer and deputy director of the military’s TRICARE health plan, became the agency’s sixth leader since 2012 when he was confirmed in February.

Just weeks before Simmer’s confirmation and the day before McMaster called on the Legislature to consider restructuring DHEC, Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, introduced a bill to break up the agency.

The proposal, known as Senate Bill 2, would dissolve DHEC and replace it with a Department of Behavioral and Public Health and a Department of Environmental Services — both of which would be cabinet agencies under the governor’s control.

The Department of Behavioral and Public Health would be composed of DHEC’s health division and other previously distinct agencies like the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services and the Department of Mental Health.

The Department of Environmental Services would pick up many of the duties DHEC’s environmental division now handles, including air quality, hazardous waste and water pollution compliance, while also absorbing the Department of Natural Resources’ water division.

Some of DHEC’s previous functions, specifically those related to food sanitation and restaurant inspections, would be transferred to the Department of Agriculture under the proposal.

The Senate bill received several subcommittee hearings earlier this year, but is still in the early stages of development and isn’t expected to come up again until the legislative session resumes in January.

Task force to produce report by year’s end

In the meantime, the SHaPE SC task force, which held its inaugural meeting Thursday, will get to work crafting recommendations for lawmakers to consider when they return to work on the legislation.

The group will assess what’s working at DHEC, what needs to be improved and what challenges the agency may face in the years ahead.

“DHEC’s been around for 48 years and we’ve certainly changed a lot during those 48 years. I think we don’t know for sure what we need to do over the next five years, 10 years,” Simmer said after Thursday’s meeting. “That’s why we need external input. We’ve got a lot of smart people in this room who represent a lot of different interests and I think we need that to make sure that we are best prepared to support the people of South Carolina as we move forward.”

The diverse panel of stakeholders plan to spend the next several months meeting in subject-specific subcommittees to discuss issues of environmental protection, health and mental health and substance abuse. Each subcommittee will develop recommendations that, once approved by the full task force, will form the basis of a joint report.

The report will then be presented to DHEC’s board in early November and provided to the governor and Legislature later that month in the hope of informing their decisions about the future of the agency in advance of the January legislative session.

Simmer said he isn’t opposed to breaking up DHEC, but also believes there are benefits to having a single state agency responsible for both health and environmental issues.

“I think there’s definitely merit to the Senate Bill 2 proposal as it’s currently written. But there are some drawbacks, too,” he said. “I think part of what we’re trying to do here is get a wide stakeholder input as to what is the best way forward.”

Simmer acknowledged that some of the agency’s policies, including its environmental permitting process, are ripe for reform, but said DHEC excels in many other areas.

“The COVID response, although there might have been some problems with it initially, I think now is going very well,” he said.

Simmer conceded lawmakers are not guaranteed to adopt or even consider the task force’s recommendations, but said he’s hopeful they’ll take its report under advisement.

“We’ll provide it to them and they will use it as they feel best,” he said. “Having such a broad range of stakeholders from across the state will, I think, increase the likelihood that they use it.”

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