Lawmakers Consider Whether To Break Up Public Health Agency

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers will hold hearings this spring on a bill to split up the state's sprawling public health and environmental agency.

A proposal by Senate President Harvey Peeler would separate the Department of Health and Environmental Control into two new cabinet-level agencies and reassign some of the department's other duties to existing state agencies.

“We’re not growing government,” Peeler said of the bill Tuesday.

Unlike most public health agencies, South Carolina’s portfolio has included environmental regulation since the 1970s. It now has nearly 4,000 employees, overseeing everything from water quality, dams and landfills to hospitals and vaccine distribution.

State officials have said for years that it has become too powerful and unmanageable.

The legislation would create a new Department of Behavioral and Public Health, folding in DHEC's public health and health care quality divisions. The new agency would also incorporate the state's current alcohol and drug abuse services agency and its mental health department.

A separate Department of Environmental Services would handle programs including air quality and land and waste management. This agency would oversee all of the state's water programs, from dam safety and drinking water protection to water pollution compliance and enforcement.

Other programs would be divvied up among the state's agriculture and veterans' affairs agencies.

The change could effectively abolish DHEC's eight-member, governor-appointed board, which many lawmakers have said lacks transparency and accountability.

This session's proposal could gain traction after lawmakers and citizens alike complained about the department's response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 8,000 South Carolinians since last spring.