Pa. Senate bill keeping Polk, White Haven centers open has serious flaws. This is why | Opinion

The Polk Center, in Venango County in northwest Pennsylvania, is currently home to nearly 200 people with disabilities, and is set to close by 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Gary Blumenthal

Earlier this month, the state Senate approved legislation sponsored by Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, that seeks to halt the planned closing of the White Haven and Polk Intermediate Care Facilities/Intellectual Disabilities (ICF/ID).

There are significant flaws in the bill that legislators need to understand before they vote on the bill (SB906), which is now before the House Health Committee.

The bill prevents the closures until all 13,000 individuals on the state’s community waiting list for people with intellectual disabilities are served. The Senate Appropriations Fiscal Note estimates the cost of serving all of these individuals at $1.8 billion.

The likelihood that the General Assembly will provide these funds, given the state’s fiscal condition, is questionable.

The 13,000 people on the intellectual disability waiting list and their families will ask legislators who vote for SB 906, if they are equally committed to raising taxes to provide the needed $1.8 billion or are they going to make 13,000 people continue to go years without services?

The widespread opinion within the disability community – including people with disabilities, family members, as well as professionals at the state and federal level – is to use state and federal money prudently.

In our state’s history, there was a time when institutional services like the White Haven and Polk Centers were the only choice for families; however, with the passage of time, the ability to provide disability services in the community has grown and thrived.

A Pa. House bill that blocks the closing of two centers for the intellectually disabled just cleared a critical hurdle

Providing services at White Haven and Polk costs the state $400,000 to $450,000 per individual annually.

Community services support people with identical disability profiles for a fraction of those costs per individual. The Department of Human Services/Office of Developmental Programs are seeking to provide community services, or continuing ICF/ID services in the state’s two remaining centers, for the 302 individuals who currently live at White Haven and Polk.

For decades, states have been encouraged by the federal government to reduce or close state institutions because of decreasing demand and the availability of equal or better services in the community.

This has been the official position since the Nixon administration authorized what is now known as the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disability.

The provisions of Yudichak’s bull will force thousands of people with intellectual disabilities to go without services.

If the state treasury had an endless supply of tax dollars, there might not be a problem with keeping old service systems operating for an eternity.

Tax dollars are precious and finite. The costs of outdated services will continue to escalate as fewer people choose them. That is what is happening with state centers.

A Pa. House bill that blocks the closing of two centers for the intellectually disabled just cleared a critical hurdle

Eventually those costs will become unmanageable, as they have in other states. In Massachusetts, for example, the cost of such services in similar ICF/ID programs eventually grew to $1 million per year per resident. When equal or better services are available in the community, we cannot allow such a similar outcome to occur in PA.

The House should reject Yudichak’s bill.

Gary Blumenthal is the vice president of InVision Human Services, in Wexford and Reading, Pa.  He is a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives; a former chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Task Force on Developmental Disabilities; the former Executive Director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disability and a former member of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency.