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South Carolina's highest court is gearing up for a debate over whether the state's health agency can end a program that regulates the building or expansion of medical facilities.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the Certificate of Need program, an approvals process administered by the Department of Health and Environmental Control and required under state law for any medical facilities seeking to build or expand.

The program has been on hold since June, when Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the $1.7 million needed to run it, saying she thinks it's an impediment to the free market and isn't needed. The House sustained Haley's veto after Ways and Means Chairman Brian White took the floor and said the veto was just about the money, not whether the program should continue.

Since that vote, some House Republicans have said they didn't intend to nix the program entirely, pointing out last summer that an executive decision to discontinue the program "may be contrary to law but is certainly contrary to the will and intent of the House of Representatives."

Three dozen states have similar programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State law still requires medical facilities to acquire a Certificate of Need from DHEC before building, expanding, offering a new service or buying medical equipment costing more than $600,000. When Haley vetoed the funding, about three dozen projects worth about $100 million were being reviewed by DHEC.

Groups including the South Carolina Hospital Association sued over the issue, saying the state law requiring the review is still on the books and can't be suspended just because DHEC didn't set aside money to pay for it. Supporters also have argued that the Certificate of Need program is needed to keep costly medical services or hospital beds from going unused and that it ensures that rural communities keep access to health care.

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