COLUMBIA – The state’s Public Health and Environment Agency has set up a task force to investigate whether these two missions should be separated and how the process would work.
The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control has nearly 4,000 employees and a wide range of tasks, from disease control to the approval of new hospitals and environmental management. It even handles some development permits on the coast. There have been several proposals in the past to reorganize or split the giant, but the legislation spearheaded this year by Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, has received the most significant momentum in years.
But now the agency itself has set up a 51-person task force to submit proposals to DHEC’s boards of directors and ultimately to state law. Its members are comprised of current DHEC leadership, stakeholders and private sector representatives from three categories: healthcare, environmental and mental health. The Reorganization Act suggests combining a separate mental health agency and substance abuse agency with public health when DHEC is separated.
“The Senate Bill 2 approach makes sense in many ways,” said DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer at the group’s inaugural meeting on June 3rd. “On the other hand, I’ve seen that it … under one roof makes a lot of sense.”
He also pointed to the fact that environmental workers had supported the state’s efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The Post and Courier reported in May that Hundreds of environmental workers had taken their time, some of whom were unpaid, to commercial activities or tasks such as driving around with tight doses of medicine.
The task force is led by former longtime GOP Senator Larry Martin, who represented Pickens County for 36 years, the first 14 in the House of Representatives. Martin also worked at Alice Manufacturing, a textile company, but retired when the company’s last plant closed three years ago.
The former Senate judiciary has largely stayed out of public life since being ousted in a GOP primary in 2016. “I’m far enough away from being actively involved in partisan efforts,” he said in a June 4 interview.
Simmer called him directly to ask him to take the helm. Like all other positions in the task force, the position is only voluntary and unpaid.
“I was very impressed with his approach of not being closed to what the group is proposing,” Martin said of Simmer.
The group will meet several times over the summer and has until November 10th to submit proposals to the DHEC board.
Martin urged that the task force was not meant to “circling the wagons and trying to justify maintaining the status quo, but really seriously consider whether the agency’s functions could be broken down into different areas and people in the south even better serve “Carolina.”
You can reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.