The Lead

Wolf underlines veto threat as divided Pa. Senate passes bill blocking admin effort to shutter two centers for the intellectually disabled

By: - January 27, 2020 5:44 pm

A home in Polk, Pa., which has been home to a state center for people with disabilities since the 1890’s. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A bill that would keep Gov. Tom Wolf and his replacement from closing state centers for the intellectually disabled is heading for a certain veto when it lands on his desk.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed the legislation, from Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, 28-21 in a near-party line vote.

The proposal would put off the closure of any of the state’s four facilities for people with developmental disabilities until 2025. 

Wolf, who is term limited out of office in 2022, slated two state centers — Polk in Venango County and White Haven in Luzerne County — for shutdown last summer.

Combined, Polk and White Haven have 300 residents and have an annual cost of $128 million in taxpayer dollars to keep open.

The number of disabled people who live at state-run centers has dwindled. That doesn’t mean closing them isn’t controversial

Yudichak, whose district includes White Haven, said that closure was “driven by a misguided belief that special interest groups, not families, know what is best for individuals.” Unions representing the centers’ employees have also joined the push to stop Wolf.

Backed by both establishment and grassroots advocates, Wolf has countered that institutional care is expensive and that community-based care offers people with disabilities more freedom and dignity.

The state paid private care providers $2 billion last year to care for people with disabilities.

Wolf promised a veto last year, which he reiterated Friday.

“This is the right thing to do, but we have to do it right,” he said after an event in Pittsburgh.

The veto promise comes even as a federal report found that two deaths and thousands of other “critical incidents” went unreported to state authorities in private care for people with intellectual disabilities.

According to WITF-FM, the reporting lapse also prevented state action to improve conditions.

Wolf said the report doesn’t change his mind about his veto, even as it would likely send Polk and White Haven residents into private care.

The state did need to be a stronger steward of people with disabilities, Wolf added. He pointed to recommendations made last fall to improve care for so-called “vulnerable populations.”

A budget preview in early January also called to move 832 people into a state Medical Assistance, or Medicaid, program. Another 12,000 would still be waiting for services.

Monday’s vote tally was much closer than an earlier roll call in November, when the proposal passed 40-9. That bipartisan vote came a day before Yudichak left the Democratic Party and started caucusing as an independent with the Senate GOP.

The tight margin also robs center proponents of the threat to override Wolf’s likely veto. The House passed the legislation last week with the slim two-thirds majority needed to beat the veto pen.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.