New DHEC director discusses hospital issues

DHEC Director Catherine Heigel, still adjusting to her new role she assumed two weeks ago, discusses the direction she wants to take the agency. during an interview Tuesday at DHEC headquarters in Columbia.

Ninety-nine applicants wanted the top job at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, arguably the state’s unwieldest agency.

Two weeks ago, Catherine Heigel took the helm. This 44-year-old Greenville mother of three is now responsible for running a department whose 3,400 employees oversee everything from restaurant inspections and dock permits to Ebola preparedness and infant mortality.

Heigel, the past president of South Carolina operations for Duke Power, replaces former DHEC Director Catherine Templeton, who resigned in January. The DHEC board originally wanted Eleanor Kitzman for the job, but Kitzman, an alumna of both Gov. Mark Sanford’s and Gov. Nikki Haley’s cabinets, withdrew her name from consideration after a contentious Senate confirmation hearing in February.

Heigel sat down with The Post and Courier last week to discuss her new role. The following interview has been edited for length.

Q: Who approached you about this job? Obviously filling the position was fraught with some controversy earlier this year.

A: I don’t want to comment on who approached me, but I was approached in February when it became available. I was asked to consider it and I did consider it and ultimately, at the end of March, submitted an application and pursued the process at that point.

Q: Why did you submit the application? What about this job appeals to you?

A: The opportunity to make a difference. The mission of the agency speaks to me. My background, ultimately, I feel, has led me right to this position in terms of my legal background, my regulatory background and my management experience.

Q: Has there been a steep learning curve?

A: There’s definitely a learning curve. I would say the learning curve is associated with the sheer magnitude of the agency and the areas that the agency is engaged in terms of both environment and public health.

Q: Ms. Templeton was fairly vocal about the fact that she thought those functions should be split into two agencies. What do you think?

A: I don’t have any opinion on that at this time. What I need to do, and what I’ve articulated to employees that I plan to do, is to spend time learning the operations of the agency, learning the scope and scale of the programs that we offer and then if I’m asked, I can give an informed opinion, but at this point in time, nothing suggests to me that there’s a need to split the agency. Again, I’m a week and a half on the job.

Q: DHEC played a major role last fall making sure South Carolina was ready if, in fact, Ebola should land here. Do you feel confident we’re ready to handle this kind of emergency — Ebola or otherwise?

A: The public can take assurance that we’re taking every precaution that we can. We are working to make sure we have the right processes and procedures in place to respond to any emergent issue, whether it’s a health care issue — public health, infectious disease or otherwise — or an environmental issue. In any emergency situation, we need to be ready as an agency to get into rapid response mode. We have taken a lot of steps prior to my arrival here to get ready.

Q: The hospital industry is concerned about the future of South Carolina’s Certificate of Need policy, which regulates hospital expansion across the state. Gov. Haley has been an outspoken critic of the existing rules, arguing they hamper free market competition. How should Certificate of Need change? Does it need to change? What can we expect to happen in the near future?

A: That’s a policy issue that’s for the Legislature to determine. My role is really to make sure I have the right resources and staff to implement whatever the program is that they have deemed, as a policy matter, is appropriate for our state.

Q: Do you have that staff in place?

A: I think it’s a work in progress.

Q: When approving a wall recently for a development on Capt. Sam’s Spit on Kiawah Island, DHEC staff didn’t take into account a South Carolina Supreme Court mandate in its decision rejecting an earlier wall for the development — the mandate saying the agency has to consider the long-range impact of a project on the environment of a coastal zone beyond simply the critical area when considering permits. Opponents say the staff decision essentially ignored the Supreme Court ruling. What’s your perspective on that?

A: I can’t comment on it because it’s a pending case right now.

Q: A lot of people think DHEC staff shortchanged public input in its decision to approve the first of an expected seven to nine permits to use seismic guns to explore for oil and natural gas offshore. Staff decided that an earlier federal public hearing fulfilled the requirement. Critics say staff should have taken into account the huge public interest and opposition to the exploration and erred on the side of holding the hearing instead of not holding it. Where do you stand on that?

A: I don’t want to get into the details, so let me just respond generically. It is my position and will be this agency’s posture to have transparency and to have public input, opportunities for public input, public hearings wherever possible and appropriate.

Q: Critics contend both of these incidents indicate the agency is acting as a political entity rather than a regulatory agency. How would you respond to that?

A: We have a job to do and we’re going to do that in accordance with the law, as the law is today. I’m going to stand behind my staff recommendations that are in accordance with the law.

Q: Did your predecessor give you any advice about the job?

A: She did. She gave me some great advice. Because of the magnitude of the agency, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed sometimes by all that you might want to do. I think she gave me some pretty sage advice about focusing in on a couple of areas and prioritizing.

Q: Have you set any sort of timetable on your tenure here?

A: No. I think when you do that, you’re looking past the job you’re in to the next and I don’t believe in doing that. I think you need to be where you are when you’re there. I’m here and I can tell you based on my to-do list, it’s going to take a little while.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.