South Carolina

Could Greenville County become the healthiest county in the nation?

The Greenville News

Greenville Health System is banking $80 million that it can.

The hospital system unveiled a plan Tuesday that will provide $4 million a year for the next 20 years to fund grants to nonprofits that aim to improve the health of the county with a goal of being the healthiest in the U.S. in two decades.

Called Healthy Greenville 2036, it’s one of the largest discretionary grant pools in the county’s history, according to Lisa Stevens, chair of the board of trustees of the Greenville Health Authority, formerly the GHS board of trustees.

“This $4 million a year over 20 years is unprecedented,” she told The Greenville News. “This will be impactful here.”

The grants will fund projects for health related care, education and research aimed at moving the needle in four key areas: access to health care, social determinants of health, mental health, and healthy eating and exercise.

Those topics were identified in the county's 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment as top concerns and can impact a variety of health issues from premature death and low birthweight babies to diabetes and heart disease, Stevens said.

“We’re going to point the light and say this is where we’re going to invest,” she said. “We want to fund programs that are affecting people’s lives. We want boots on the ground changing these issues.”

Improvements will be measured through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings.

The funds will come from GHS’s $2 billion annual budget, Stevens said, and represent $82 million in county tax funds GHS got decades ago to build parts of Greenville Memorial, Hillcrest Memorial, North Greenville Hospital and Allen Bennett Memorial.

Last fall, GHS changed its governance structure so that it remains a public nonprofit as part of a larger private, nonprofit multi-regional health system. Under that plan, GHS leases its assets to an affiliated organization run by the multiregional, and a new board for the private entity makes strategic and operating decisions.

Trustees of the public entity, who were approved by the Greenville County Legislative Delegation, had those responsibilities previously. But some legislators opposed the change, saying it took public assets out of public oversight.

GHS established the grant program as a way to return an amount equal to the taxpayer support it had gotten.

“It’s an acknowledgement that this money is something that the taxpayers did,” Stevens said. “It’s a gesture of good faith.”

But state Rep. Mike Burns said the grant program is not a very good deal for the taxpayers.

“First of all, this was ... $82 million in county money. They should return it to the county and let County Council reduce tax rates or spend it however the county sees fit,” he said. “GHS should not have the privilege of disseminating it to whoever they can and get whatever good will they can out of it.”