While one South Carolina hospital decided this year to completely remove sugary drinks from its facility, the director of health promotion at the Medical University of South Carolina said Charleston's largest hospital has no intention of going that far.

Instead, MUSC is partnering with the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. to help make healthier choices less expensive.

"We just didn't feel like it was the right thing to do - to completely remove choice," said Susan Johnson, director of MUSC's Office of Health Promotion.

So a Coke costs 5 cents more now than a Coke Zero or a Dasani bottled water, and the extra charge is donated to the hospital's pediatric obesity program. Patients and employees still can choose high-calorie options at vending machines on campus, but the low-calorie or no-calorie drinks are more prominent and less expensive.

Vending machines at MUSC advertise healthier options now too, because Coca-Cola swapped its classic red-and-white Coke skins with Coke Zero or Dasani labels.

"We've been phasing this in - it takes time and money for them to change out. We have machines all over our campus," Johnson said.

The partnership between the hospital and the bottling company dovetails with a larger statewide effort by the South Carolina Hospital Association to make workplaces - and hospitals especially, which employ about 80,000 people in this state - healthier places.

Medical University Hospital is one of 21 organizations that has earned the association's Working Well Gold Apple for its nutrition efforts. It also is one of only nine hospitals in the state that the hospital association has designated as "triple gold," for addressing tobacco use and promoting nutrition and physical activity.

Oconee Medical Center in Seneca, the only hospital to completely remove sugar-sweetened drinks, is also a Gold Apple recipient.

Dr. Bruce Snyder, president of the South Carolina Medical Association, called for hospitals to follow Oconee Medical Center's lead this fall, but the South Carolina Hospital Association believes there are measures short of removing choice that can make a hospital healthier.

"Speaking personally, I applaud Dr. Snyder's commitment to improve dietary habits in the Palmetto State," wrote Thorton Kirby, president of the hospital association, in a letter to the association members.

"We are one of the least healthy states in one of the least healthy nations in the world, and we should be ashamed of that terrible distinction."

Like Oconee Medical Center, the hospital association removed sugary drinks from its headquarters in Columbia.

"But I also recognize this represents a culture change, and our state's culture is a long way from where it needs to be," Kirby said. "It takes leadership, and it takes time."

Rozalynn Goodwin, vice president for community engagement at the hospital association, said a hospital can be a stressful place for patients and visitors and sometimes, "What they want is a Coke."

While the association supports Oconee Medical Center's decision, it did not encourage them to make it, Goodwin said.

"It's very complicated - that's why we have not and will not probably make any type of statement to encourage or discourage hospitals from eliminating (sugary drinks) on campus," Goodwin said. "(The hospitals) are the best judges of how that would impact their campus, their patients and their visitors."

Like MUSC's partnership with Coca-Cola, Pepsi also is teaming up with hospitals in South Carolina to encourage healthier choices, she said.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.