COLUMBIA — A controversial bill to split the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control into new health and environmental arms would also bring in the state’s mental health services, which argues for concerns about disrupting care and funding and services would dilute.
The House Ways and Means Committee did not pass the S.2 bill as planned on April 28. Some hope this means the bill won’t be passed in the final days of the legislative session, which ends on May 12.
“It’s not going to happen this year, I don’t think,” said Bill Lindsey, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness South Carolina. “The bill was just huge. I think Ways and Means decided it was too much work trying to get through the last six days of the session.”
The bill would split DHEC, the state’s largest agency that currently has nearly 4,000 employees, and divide its programs into three entities:
- A new Department of Behavioral and Public Health, which would incorporate the public health functions of DHEC, the current Department of Mental Health and the current Department of Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Services.
- A new Department of Environmental Services, which would incorporate the environmental programs currently part of DHEC, as well as the hydrology and flood control programs currently housed within the Department of Natural Resources.
- The Department of Agriculture, which will absorb DHEC’s food safety programs.
Though DHEC has been criticized as overly large and cumbersome, the new health agency would take about 2,000 of those employees and combine them with between 3,500 and 4,500 mental health workers, creating an even larger agency, said Lindsey, who is on a study committee. was sitting. looked at the potential implications of the split and amalgamation of agencies last year.
“It makes no sense,” he said.
The combination of several departments in a single agency can also lead to potential conflicts, said Mark W. Binkley, director of governmental and legislative affairs for the state’s Department of Mental Health. For example, Mental Health operates hospitals and nursing homes licensed by DHEC. If the new agency were established, one branch would license and inspect another branch’s programs, he said. If that inspection finds violations, sanctions or fines could follow for the other part of the agency, which would have the right to challenge that, Binkley said.
“You could have one division appeal the actions of another division,” he said. That could ultimately be up to the new director, who would be caught in the middle of a murderous battle, Binkley said.
It would also require a mental health agency whose budget is already “very strained,” and it would be lumped together with other health agencies that have their own funding needs, he said.
“They’re going to compete with each other,” Binkley said, even before submitting a formal budget request. “You’ll probably be knocked out before you get to the starting line.”
A similar argument has been made before in favor of separating DHEC’s dual health and environmental missions. Those involved in the environmental programs there told The Post and Courier last year that it has been difficult to get funding for those environmental tasks — including pollution programs, water system management and beach permits — when weighed against public health needs.
But now mental health advocates fear that if funding for their services tightens, the state’s 16 community mental health centers could be consolidated into fewer regional centers.
“It was just a bad idea for people with mental health issues,” Lindsey said.
That potential reduction in services, particularly for rural areas, appeared to grab lawmakers’ attention during testimony about the bill in a Ways and Means subcommittee earlier this week, said Jerry Dean Pate, a board member of Columbia Area Mental Health Center, one of the currently operating community centers.
“We are really concerned if it is merged into a bigger agency, then the services will be watered down” and become more difficult to access, he said.
Worse, the move would come at a time when the pandemic has increased the need for mental health care, Lindsey said.
“Sorry, you’ve got all this stuff going on that needs to be addressed in mental health without adding to it, without adding to the stress and making it harder to get treatment,” Lindsey said.
That said, the idea of breaking down the health and environmental functions of DHEC does make sense to Lindsey and Pate.
“I think DHEC needs to be deconsolidated,” Lindsey said. “I just don’t think they should include mental health.”
If the bill doesn’t pass the House before the end of the session, it will have to start again next year, as this is the last year of a two-year legislative session in South Carolina.
Chloe Johnson contributed to this story of Charleston.