COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina’s 124th General Assembly starts Tuesday, and among the top issues is tackling public health.
One of the pre-filed bills would rename and restructure South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
Instead of being the Department of Health and Environmental Control, state senators want to rename it to the Department of Behavioral and Public Health.
If the pre-filed bill passed, it would combine DHEC’s current division with the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DOADAS) while scaling back some of the agency’s other responsibilities.
Those supporting the idea say it would better align responsibilities with specialized service.
“Anytime that you align the functions of any organization, the state government, in this case, the functions align in a more organized fashion,” Greg Hembree, SC State Senator, said. “They’re in better alignment with their areas of expertise, you’re going to get a more efficient and also a better-quality outcome and result, and that’s what we are all about, solving the problem.”
In recent weeks, Governor McMaster has also expressed support for dividing and restructuring the state department. Both McMaster and State Senators say the agency is too large and lacks structure.
While the pre-filed bill’s primary sponsor, Harvey Peeler, has been working on the idea for several years, according to Sen. Hembree, the pandemic has spotlighted areas of improvement.
“They’re dealing with land management issues when they are a public health agency, so that’s the appeal and what got my attention,” Hembree said.
Sponsors of Senate Bill Two say the legislation would give agencies more defined responsibilities. DHEC’s responsibilities range from land management to environmental to a demanding health crisis.
Senator Hembree said if the bill passed, more responsibilities would be delegated to other agencies like the Department of Natural Resources.
“Working in their field of expertise where they are more comfortable and better at instead of being called on to do things, they aren’t trained to do so, in the long run, I think it will make the department stronger, and the outcomes will be better,” Hembree said.
If it goes through, lawmakers say it could be on the Senate calendar as early as February. If passed, changes to DHEC would go into effect upon signature of the governor.
DHEC is one of the few joint health and environmental agencies in the country, according to Hembree. Several states operate under a similar model to what lawmakers are proposing.
Lawmakers will meet in-person for the next 18 weeks, despite a record number of COVID-19 cases across the state.
Leaders say they will follow strict protocols, and all 46 senators have agreed to wear a mask on the floor.
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