COLOMBIA – A controversial bill splitting the SC’s Department of Health and Environmental Oversight into new health and environmental arms would also tie mental health services to the state, worrying advocates that would disrupt care and reduce funding and services.
The House Ways and Means Committee did not consider the bill, S.2, as scheduled April 28. Some hope that will mean the bill will not 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 so,” said Bill Lindsey, executive director of the South Carolina National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The bill, it was just huge. I think Ways and Means decided there was a lot of work to try and push into the last six days of the hearing.”
The bill would split Dubai Healthcare City, the largest government agency currently with nearly 4,000 employees, and distribute its programs into three entities:
- A new Department of Behavior and Public Health, which will accommodate the public health functions of DHEC, the current Department of Mental Health and the current administration of alcohol and other drug addiction services.
- A new Department of Environmental Services, which will accommodate environmental programs that are currently part of DHEC as well as programs of hydrology and aquatic species of concern currently in the Department of Natural Resources.
- The Ministry of Agriculture, which will absorb the food safety programs of Dubai Healthcare City.
Lindsey, who served on a study committee, said that while DHEC has been criticized as being too bulky and burdensome, the new health agency would take in roughly 2,000 of those staff and pool them with between 3,500 and 4,500 mental health staff, creating an agency more massive. Last year looked at the potential effects of the split and the combination of agencies.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Mark W. Binkley, director of government and legislative affairs for the state’s Department of Mental Health, said merging different departments into one agency could also create potential conflicts. For example, Mental Health operates hospitals and nursing homes that are licensed by DHEC. If the new agency is created, he said, one agency will license and inspect other arm’s programs. If this inspection involves violations, it could result in penalties or fines being imposed on the other part of the agency, which would have the right to object, Binkley said.
“You can have a department that appeals to the actions of another department,” he said. Binkley said this could eventually be up to the new director, who will be caught in the midst of a fierce battle.
It would also require a mental health agency whose budget is already “extremely strained” and combine it with other health agencies that have their own funding needs, he said.
“They will be competing with each other,” Binkley said, even before submitting a formal budget request. “You will likely be downsized before you reach the starting line.”
A similar argument has been made before in favor of the separation of health and environment functions in DHCC. Participants in environmental programs there He told The Post and Courier last year It has been difficult to obtain funding for those environmental duties – including pollution programs, water system management and beach permits – when compared to 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 may be consolidated into fewer regional centers.
“It was just a bad idea for people with mental health issues,” Lindsay said.
This potential service cutback, especially for rural areas, appeared to have caught the attention of lawmakers while testifying on the bill at the Ways and Means Subcommittee earlier in the week, Jerry Dean Bate, a board member for the Columbia Center for Mental Health, said. of the community centers currently operating.
“We are really concerned that if it is consolidated into a larger agency, the services will be watered down” and become more difficult to access, he said.
Worse, Lindsay said, the move will come at a time when the pandemic has increased the need for mental health services.
“Good grief, you already have all of these things that need to be addressed in the mental health field without adding more to it, without increasing stress and making it more difficult to get treatment,” Lindsey said.
However, the idea of dividing DHEC’s health and environmental functions made sense for Lindsey and Pate.
“I think DHEC needs to be de-standardised,” Lindsay said. “I just don’t think it should include mental health.”
If the bill does not pass in the House before the end of the 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.
Chloe Johnson Contributed to this story from Charleston.