Divide DHEC into two different agencies

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control has always been a bad marriage. Rather than burdening a new director with the task of running this unmanageable agency, we hope lawmakers will carry through with a proposal to eliminate it and disperse its duties to other state agencies.

Ever since its inception in the early 1970s, DHEC has been neither an effective health department nor the equivalent of a state environmental protection agency. Health experts at the agency are not particularly qualified to make decisions regarding environmental issues, such as designating protected wetlands, while environmental experts are equally unqualified to make decisions about public health issues, such as hospital expansions.

DHEC, which has about 3,500 workers, is one of the state’s largest departments. It has a hodgepodge of wide-ranging duties, including issuing pollution discharge permits, monitoring water quality, governing coastal development and regulating tattoo parlors.

The idea of splitting DHEC’s duties has been broached before. But the recent hard-nosed questioning in the state Senate of Eleanor Kitzman, a candidate to for head of the agency, has sparked new interest in the proposal.

Senators were tough on Kitzman during the four-hour confirmation hearing Feb. 19. Some on the panel expressed reservations about Kitzman’s qualifications for the post.

Subsequently, Kitzman pulled her name from consideration as director. And a day after that, Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, announced that he would introduce a bill next month to eliminate DHEC. Under the plan, DHEC’s health work would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, while its environmental oversight would go to either the Department of Natural Resources or Department of Agriculture.

We think the environmental duties are a natural match for either of those departments. But this could be a good opportunity to create a new state Health Department, separate from DSS.

Kitzman, a former state insurance commissioner in South Carolina and Texas, was recommended for the job by Gov. Nikki Haley as a replacement for Catherine Templeton, who resigned in January after four years as director. The DHEC board selected Kitzman as Templeton’s successor without seeking other applications.

But agency heads must be confirmed by the Senate, and a number of senators questioned Kitzman’s qualifications, suggesting that her appointment had been a political favor from Haley. The governor appoints all of DHEC’s board members.

Questioners were critical of her lack of experience in either health or environmental matters. In addition, she was accused of making conflicting statements to the legislative screening committee.

While Haley defended Kitzman, saying her managerial skills would make her an ideal choice, Kitzman sent a letter to the DHEC board Feb. 22 saying she was dropping out. This would appear to be an ideal moment to abolish DHEC and divide its duties among more appropriate agencies.

The problem with DHEC is not primarily poor management. It’s the mismatched, hybrid nature of the department itself.

The oversight of both public health and the state’s environment warrant their own agencies. Rather than waste time finding a new director, the Legislature should give serious consideration to Peeler’s proposal.