COLUMBIA — A controversial bill to split the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control into new health and environmental arms would also rope in the state’s mental health services, which advocates worry would disrupt care and dilute funding and services.
The House Ways and Means Committee did not take up the bill, S.2, as scheduled April 28. Some are hopeful it means the bill will not pass in the waning days of the legislative session, which ends May 12.
“It’s not going to happen this year, I don’t think,” said Bill Lindsey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness South Carolina. “The bill, it was just massive. I think Ways and Means decided it was too much work to try and push into the last six days of session.”
The bill would split up DHEC, the state’s largest agency currently with nearly 4,000 employees, and spread its programs into three entities:
- A new Department of Behavioral and Public Health, which would absorb the public health functions of DHEC, the current Department of Mental Health and the current Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
- A new Department of Environmental Services, which would absorb the environmental programs currently a part of DHEC as well as the hydrology and aquatic nuisance species programs currently housed at the Department of Natural Resources.
- The Department of Agriculture, which will absorb DHEC’s food safety programs.
While DHEC has been criticized as overly large and cumbersome, the new health agency would take roughly 2,000 of those employees and combine them with between 3,500 and 4,500 mental health employees, creating an even more massive agency, said Lindsey, who served on a study committee last year looking at the potential implications of the split and combining agencies.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The combination of different departments into a single agency could also create potential conflicts, said Mark W. Binkley, director of governmental and legislative affairs for the state Department of Mental Health. For instance, Mental Health operates hospitals and nursing homes that are licensed by DHEC. If the new agency were created, one arm would then be licensing and inspecting the programs of another arm, he said. If that inspection involved violations, then penalties or fines might ensue on the other part of the agency, which would have the right to dispute that, Binkley said.
“You could have one division appealing the actions of another division,” he said. That might ultimately be up to the new director, who would be caught in the middle of an internecine battle, Binkley said.
It would also take a mental health agency whose budget is already “very strained” and lump it in with other health agencies who have their own funding needs, he said.
“They’re going to be competing with each other,” Binkley said, even before putting in a formal budget request. “You’re probably getting wall down before you get to the starting line.”
A similar argument has been levied before in favor of separating DHEC’s twin health and environment missions. Those involved in the environmental programs there told The Post and Courier last year that it was difficult to obtain funding for those environmental duties — including pollution programs, water system management and beach permitting — when weighed against public health needs.
But now, mental health advocates fear that if funding for their services becomes tighter, the state’s 16 Community Mental Health Centers might be consolidated into fewer regional centers.
“It was just a bad idea for folks with mental health issues,” Lindsey said.
That potential reduction in services, particularly for rural areas, seemed to get the attention of legislators during testimony on the bill at a Ways and Means subcommittee earlier in the week, said Jerry Dean Pate, a board member of Columbia Area Mental Health Center, one of the currently operating community centers.
“We’re really worried if it gets merged into a bigger agency then services are going to get watered down” and become more difficult to access, he said.
Worse, the move would come at a time when the pandemic has heightened the need for mental health services, Lindsey said.
“Good grief, you’ve already got all of this stuff going on that needs to be addressed in mental health without adding to it, without adding to the stress and making it more difficult to get treatment,” Lindsey said.
That being said, the idea of splitting up DHEC’s health and environmental functions does make sense to Lindsey and Pate.
“I do 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 session, it will have to start from square one next year, because this is the last year of a two-year legislative session in South Carolina.
Chloé Johnson contributed to this story from Charleston.