Lawmakers Aim To Stop Closure Of 2 Institutions For Disabled

Jan 16, 2020

A fight to block Gov. Tom Wolf from closing two state centers for the intellectually disabled produced a second large majority in Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday, even as Wolf vowed to continue a decades-old trend away from institutional care.

The state House of Representatives voted 139-55 for legislation to prevent a governor from closing any of Pennsylvania's four remaining state centers for at least five years, and then only with approval from an independent task force.

In November, the Senate voted 40-9 for an earlier version of the bill. Wolf, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the bill, which requires another Senate vote to get to his desk.

Still, the bill faces an uphill climb to get Democratic lawmakers to go along with an override of a veto, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said most Democrats would not help form the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. Wolf has not had a veto overridden since he took office in 2015.

The bill emerged after Wolf's announcement in August that he would close White Haven in northeastern Pennsylvania and Polk in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Closing the centers could theoretically save money that could then help whittle down a 13,000-long waiting list of people with disabilities seeking state aid to begin or upgrade the services they receive in community settings.

At its high point, more than 13,000 people lived in 23 state centers in Pennsylvania, according to the Wolf administration. Since then, the nation has moved to reintegrate those people into settings closer to home, whether in smaller group homes with around-the-clock care or with relatives who receive in-home visits by direct care workers.

Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, called the vote one of the must gut-wrenching he has had to make.

“Do we decide to keep these facilities open, operating very inefficiently and keeping these people who need the help where they are?” he said during Wednesday's half-hour floor debate. “Or do we decide to move them and help more people?”

The closings are being fought by employees and family members of the centers' residents, who also say they will file a lawsuit in federal court in the coming days in an effort to block the shutdowns.

Employees and relatives say the state centers have been good for its residents, the services are comprehensive, the staff is professional and moving could be traumatic for many residents who have severe disabilities and may have lived there for decades.

“When he was in the group homes, he was always covered in bruises, but now he’s not,” Susan Jennings said in an interview about her 28-year-old son Joey, who lives at White Haven. “He still has episodes of errant behavior, but they know how to handle it.”

Jennings and other critics say the services in the community are delivered by underpaid or poorly trained workers in jobs with high turnover, medication can be given or prescribed haphazardly and medical professionals aren't close by, leaving a 911 call as the only option during a severe behavioral episode.

Currently, the state centers see just a trickle of new residents, normally by court order, and the population has steadily shrunk, administration officials say.

The Wolf administration has prominent allies, including the Arc of Pennsylvania and Disability Rights Pennsylvania, who argue that the state centers are an outdated, segregated model of treatment, and that people with severe disabilities are treated just as well in the community, for several times less.

The state's tab for services in community setting will approach $3.5 billion this year for roughly 56,000 people. The tab for White Haven and Polk this year is about $130 million for about 300 residents.

Wolf's administration would close White Haven and Polk, where original buildings date back more than a century, over a three-year process. Administration officials say it will both save money and give those residents the opportunity to live closer to home in community settings that provide a higher quality of life.

The centers' residents can also move to one of the two other state centers, Selinsgrove and Ebensburg, where about 400 beds are available, Wolf administration officials say.