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

By: - October 22, 2019 2:52 pm

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).

A state House committee has passed a bill that would stop the state Department of Human Services from closing two facilities that provide services for the intellectually disabled.

The House Health Committee voted 17-8 on Tuesday to approve the legislation. It’s sponsored by Rep. Gerald Mullery, a Luzerne County Democrat whose district includes one such facility.

Mullery’s bill, which now goes to the full House for a vote, would block the Wolf administration from shutting down the two centers until the state clears a waitlist of adults with developmental disabilities who must be provided with home care.

“We were forcing the conversation,” Mullery told the Capital-Star. “We were forcing the [administration] to hopefully take a step back, reevaluate, consider stakeholder input, then make a decision.”

The Wolf administration announced the shutdowns in August, saying they were justified by high cost — it costs more than $400,000 per-person to care for the 306 residents in both centers — and the evolution in disability rights over the last few decades.

One center is located in White Haven Borough, about 35 miles south of Scranton. The other center is located in Polk Borough, in rural Venango County, less than 100 miles north of Pittsburgh.

The Democratic administration’s decision sparked a stern backlash from the unions representing workers at the centers, as well as from center residents and their families.

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

In an email, Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said the administration opposes the bill. He reiterated DHS’s stance that any individuals who leave the centers will not be added to the waitlist for home care. 

“The remaining waitlist for these services shows that there is demand for community-based care and further investment and transition to community-based care should be the priority for state government,” Abbott said. “Transitioning from institutionalization will also create more available funding for community-based care.”

Under Mullery’s proposal, no future administration would be allowed to close a state center until the now-13,000 deep waiting list for Medicare funding for in-home or community care is eliminated.

The list is created when individuals with developmental disabilities leave school, where they are covered by special education programs. 

Currently, the waiver can go to any expense that helps individuals with disabilities go about their daily lives. It is often put to hiring in-home aides or similar help.

The waiting list has existed for years, and clearing it has been a long-time goal for disability advocates. It would likely cost hundreds of million of dollars.

Just taking 865 individuals off the list this fiscal year cost $30 million in state funding, according to DHS. That money is matched by the federal government.

After the waitlist is a thing of the past, Mullery’s legislation calls for the creation of a task force of administration officials, families of facility residents, workers at the facilities, legislators, and disability advocates that’s charged with evaluating the impact of institutions’ closure on residents and the local economy.

The shutdowns have run into bipartisan opposition, especially in ancestrally Democratic Luzerne County. 

Mullery has joined with Republican colleagues from the county such as Rep. Tarah Toohil, to champion the need to keep White Haven and Polk open. But in doing so, he’s challenged Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

A total of 53 House lawmakers spread across the state and ideological spectrum have co-sponsored Mullery’s legislation. Similar legislation in the Senate has attracted 10 co-sponsors.

The bill almost hit a snag in committee when Rep. Pam DeLissio, a fellow Democrat from Philadelphia, tried to table the bill.

If the centers could only be closed after Pennsylvania has pumped millions into new human services funding, DeLissio said that closures of the state facilities would happen at “the twelfth of never.”

“In my nine years in the Legislature … those revenues have not been a priority for this Legislature,” she said during the hearing. “If those revenues were a priority, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

DeLissio’s motion to table was not seconded. 

Two Democrats joined every Republican on the committee in supporting the bill. Ranking Democrat Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, said he opposed the bill but wanted to get it to the floor.

The bill now goes to the full House, where it could come up for a final vote as soon as next week. Assuming it’s passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, Wolf would get the final say on whether to allow the legislation to become law or veto it.

This story was updated with additional information at 4:05 p.m.

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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.