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Navy veteran wins approval from Senate as DHEC director; will tackle coronavirus

State - 2/4/2021

Feb. 4—Retired Navy doctor Edward Simmer, days after impressing members of a legislative screening panel concerned about the state's coronavirus response, won approval Thursday from the S.C. Senate as the next director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The Senate voted 40-1 to confirm Simmer. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, voted against Simmer's confirmation. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, abstained.

DHEC, one of the state's largest agencies, has been without a director since Rick Toomey left in June in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. The department's response has been roundly criticized.

Sen. Danny Verdin said Simmer's credentials from an extensive career as a military doctor impressed him and fellow legislators. Simmer most recently was a top executive with the TRICARE health plan, a military insurance program. He has spent some 30 years in the military as a doctor.

"He pours himself into his work, he pours himself into his community," said Verdin, chairman of the screening committee that grilled Simmer. Verdin said "we found nothing" that raised flags about Simmer's background and qualifications.

Simmer, 56, received approval from Verdin's screening panel Tuesday after answering questions for more than two hours about how he would handle the COVID 19 pandemic, as well as other DHEC responsibilities, such as environmental protection.

DHEC's new director, the fourth at the agency since 2012, has a big task ahead.

Simmer must take charge of a department that has been called rudderless at a time when South Carolina needs leadership most. DHEC staff members have worked diligently to attack the health crisis, some lawmakers say, but they also say the agency's steps have been tentative, at best, in dealing with COVID 19.

Most recently, the agency has been criticized for what many say is a bureaucratic process to get COVID 19 vaccines. Simmer told senators Tuesday that needs to improve.

In a prepared statement Thursday, Simmer said he's optimistic the state can beat the coronavirus. He said he's "looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting to work."

"From the front lines to our living rooms, COVID-19 has challenged us all," the statement said. "We have made sacrifices and lost loved ones. However, together, with agency staff and our many partners, I am confident that we will get through this and come back stronger than before."

Simmer is a native of northern Ohio who formerly ran the naval hospital in Beaufort, where he and his wife own a home. He does not plan to commute from Beaufort but will work from a home in Columbia.

Simmer's background, in addition to six years at TRICARE, also includes stints as a military hospital chief in Washington state and working as a psychiatrist at various military institutions, including Camp Lejeune, N.C. He also has provided counseling support for the crew of the USS Cole, which was bombed in 2000, and has served as an advisor to the commander of the Guantanamo Base, Cuba, terrorist detainee camp.

Simmer succeeds Toomey, an affable retired hospital executive. Toomey, a board member who was handed the director's job in late 2018, served only about 18 months as DHEC director. He stepped down temporarily from DHEC last spring because of blood pressure and heart problems, then returned briefly, before announcing his resignation in late May.

It took the DHEC board until Dec. 22 to choose Simmer out of more than 80 candidates and two other finalists for the job.

Gov. Henry McMaster said he's delighted Simmer is taking over.. Simmer will start work at DHEC immediately.

"Dr. Simmer has a lifetime of experience leading large, complex medical organizations and has successfully brought positive change everywhere he has been," the governor's statement said. "He clearly has all of the professional qualifications and leadership skills necessary to lead the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The people of South Carolina will be well served by his confirmation."

Despite the optimism, Grooms and Harpootlian said they have reservations about Simmer and DHEC.

The Berkeley senator said he was not comfortable that Simmer could lead the agency through the COVID 19 pandemic, the state's worst in more than 100 years.

"In another time before COVID, he may have been a good choice," Grooms said after the vote. "But I'm awfully disappointed in the board after eight months of not being able to find a suitable candidate for executive director, that their best is Dr. Simmer.

"While he may be qualified to do some things, leading DHEC and being the face of our state's response to the COVID pandemic, that's probably where he should not be." Grooms said he doesn't "get a great feeling of confidence when I'm around him."

Harpootlian said he abstained because he wasn't happy with the DHEC board's decision but didn't want to attack Simmer.

He's doubtful that Simmer will make sweeping changes that the senator says are needed at DHEC, an agency long criticized for not being aggressive enough. Harpootlian wants the agency's governing board to resign, or be fired by McMaster, and be replaced with members who know more about health and the environment, he said.

"I don"t think any one person, especially one with no experience in this area, can turn that agency around," Harpootlian said after the vote. "He's not going to change the culture."

DHEC is one of the state's largest agencies, with more than 3,000 full-time workers and another 1,000 part-time and temporary employees. It has wide-ranging duties.

Among its responsibilities are addressing public health threats, like COVID 19, issuing birth certificates, overseeing hospital expansions, licensing tattoo parlors, considering whether to issue pollution discharge permits for industries, monitoring rivers and air for pollution, and permitting landfills.

The department, formed in the early 1970s, is one of the few single agencies in the country that provide both health and environmental services.

This story has been updated with comments from Edward Simmer


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