South Carolina health board picks new agency leader

December 22, 2020 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After months without a permanent director at the helm of the agency overseeing South Carolina’s coronavirus response, the state’s health board selected a military doctor to head the state’s health and environmental department Tuesday.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control board unanimously voted for Dr. Edward Simmer, who previously oversaw civilian medical and dental care for the Defense Health Agency in Virginia and will retire from three decades of Navy service at the end of the year. The board-certified psychiatrist also holds a master’s degree in public health.

The board lauded Simmer’s years of experience with government and familiarity with South Carolina — he once headed the military hospital in Beaufort — as well as his emphasis on rural health: “He just checked all the boxes,” said board member Sonny Kinney, Jr.

Gov. Henry McMaster called Simmer “an excellent choice” in a statement Tuesday, adding that he hoped the state Senate would confirmed Simmer as quickly as possible.

DHEC’s top seat has sat empty for half a year as the agency has attempted to battle the pandemic, frustrating some lawmakers to the point where a top state senator has proposed dissolving the department altogether.

Heightened focus on DHEC’s operations comes as coronavirus cases have again surged in South Carolina, with top state health and hospital officials saying case and hospital numbers are surpassing the state’s summer spike.

South Carolina joins many other states scrambling to find qualified health care leaders as public health officials have left the field due to pandemic pressure and political backlash. The agency has lacked permanent leadership since late May, when then-Director Rick Toomey stepped down, citing his own health. In the following months, DHEC also lost its public health director, Joan Duwve, who worked at the agency for less than a year before leaving.

DHEC’s board had spent 17 months looking for a new director before selecting Toomey in late 2018.

Talking to reporters earlier this month, Gov. McMaster did not comment directly on whether he was satisfied with the pace of the board’s search, saying he wished the previous directors had stayed: “I know that the board is very actively seeking just the right person to take this position,” McMaster said.

The governor-appointed board winnowed down 83 applicants to Simmer and two other finalists, Greenville attorney Keith Munson and Matthew Van Patton, a Greer native who until recently oversaw the Medicaid division in Nebraska. The board had pledged to choose a new director by the end of the year, meeting in multiple hours-long sessions not open to the public this fall.

Most states have separate agencies to handle health and environmental matters. Critics have previously said South Carolina’s combined department — a sprawling, nearly 4,000-employee agency that oversees everything from hospitals and public health to water quality, dams and landfills — has become unmanageable.

Senate President Harvey Peeler proposed getting rid of the agency altogether, splitting up its health and environmental duties among existing state agencies, in pre-filed legislation for the upcoming January session.

“No one is in control at DHEC and hasn’t been for quite some time,” Peeler said in a statement. “This legislation will ensure government runs more efficiently and will give each agency clearly defined responsibilities.”

The Senate committee that screens the director-candidates has already vetted four in the past seven years, Peeler said.

Marshall Taylor, an attorney for the agency who has served as acting director since June, told reporters earlier in December that he believed leadership was in place: “I’m there,” he said.

“The legislature may have different ideas about how DHEC should be restructured, and that’s certainly within their purview,” Taylor continued. “Whatever the legislature decides, that’s what we’ll do.”