Flu shots and dams … oysters and septic tanks … hospitals and landfills. What is the connection in all of these? The connection is DHEC — our Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC is larger than 76% of our towns in South Carolina. It is larger than Pickens, St. Matthews, Sullivans Island. Larger even than Pamplico where a new four-lane highway is being built to attract tourism. DHEC has 3500 employees — and a budget of $600 million.
I tell you this not to criticize DHEC or its employees. They are doing the best job they possibly can. I say this because I believe it is time to put the environmental part of DHEC with environmental entities — and put the health side of DHEC with health entities. The current agency is just too big for one person to run on a day-to-day basis.
This Spring a new director was hired by the DHEC Board and confirmed by the South Carolina Senate. Since Catherine Heigel began leading the agency in June she has dealt with an audit questioning the agency’s inspection policy for abortion clinics, an ecoli outbreak in a day care facility, a thousand-year dam breakage in the Midlands, whether to renew the permit for a waste water treatment plant along the Saluda River in Lexington County, providing tetanus shots to flood victims, the potential for an increase in leachate at the Pinewood hazardous waste site, the move to legalize medical marijuana in the state, legislators wanting to provide some relief in the certificate of need program, Hepatitis A exposure at upstate restaurants, rabies exposure caused by bats, cats, raccoons, coyotes, sheep, foxes, dogs, and the closure of areas harvesting clams, oysters and shellfish.
Catherine Heigel and the DHEC Board have done well under the circumstances. Yet the circumstances could be better. That is why I introduced legislation to fold the health functions into an agency that would include mental health and substance abuse. That is why this same legislation would fold the environmental functions into the Department of Agriculture. This legislation neither grows government nor shrinks government. It just makes government more manageable.
Why should the Department of Agriculture be responsible for regulating shrimp — and DHEC responsible for regulating shellfish? Why should counties have separate buildings to visit for mental health services and for health services? How can we expect the same people to understand and approve permits for deepening our port’s harbor and permits for building a hospital?
I ask that you look at the legislation I introduced — S. 550. If you see a better way to make these issues more manageable, I invite you to share them with me — firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before you give this legislation a hard “no”, please give it a hard look.
Harvey Peeler is the Senator for District 14, representing Cherokee, Spartanburg, Union and York counties.