Wolf vetoes bill blocking Pa.’s planned shutdown of two centers for the intellectually disabled

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)

(*This piece has been updated to include comment from Sens. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne; Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Scott Hutchinson, whose districts include the affected residential centers)

As expected, Gov. Tom Wolf has run his veto pen across a bill that would have blocked him — and his eventual successor — from unilaterally shutting down any of Pennsylvania’s four, remaining state-owned residential centers for people living with intellectual disabilities.

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 house 300 residents and cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $128 million a year to operate.

The majority-Republican state Senate passed the legislation in a near party-line vote last month, despite Wolf’s veto threat. Wolf has argued that institutional care is expensive and that community-based care offers people with disabilities more freedom and dignity.

The bill would have imposed a five-year moratorium on future shutdowns, and turned the decision over to a task force authorized by the legislation.

The bill’s sponsor by Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, whose northeastern Pennsylvania district includes the White Haven facility, told the Capital-Star in January that the planned shutdown 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.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria whose north-central Pennsylvania district includes the Ebensburg State Center, criticized Wolf’s decision — even though it was not on the administration’s list of targeted facilities.

“While Ebensburg State Center was not on the Wolf administration’s immediate chopping block, two similar facilities were, and I enthusiastically supported this bill [in the House],” Burns said in a statement released by his office. “It’s sad that in an age when people want to see Democrats and Republicans work together for the common good, the governor fails to adhere to the will of the people and a bipartisan coalition in the Legislature.”

In a joint statement, Yudichak, along with GOP state Sens Lisa Baker, of Luzerne County, and Scott Hutchinson, of Venango County, whose district includes the Polk center, said Wolf’s veto was “devastating for family members and the dedicated employees” at the facilities.

“We are profoundly disappointed with Governor Wolf’s decision to veto [SB906] – a bipartisan bill that would have empowered families with what we believe is their right to choose the best level of care for their loved ones with intellectual disabilities,” the three lawmakers said. “The administration’s decision to close White Haven and Polk State Centers ignores the voices of families and mounting data that underscores the shortcomings of limiting choices on how best to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities. Furthermore, the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 906 is devastating for the family members, the dedicated employees and the individuals with intellectual disabilities who call White Haven and Polk State Centers home.”

In his veto message Wednesday, Wolf underlined his earlier argument about the effectiveness of community care over residential treatment.

“Community care results in better outcomes for individuals with disabilities.  Individuals with disabilities should be offered an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities,” the administration’s veto message reads. “My goal is to serve more individuals in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care, and improve access to home and community-based services.

This legislation does not promote this investment and transition to community-based care for individuals with a disability,” Wolf continued. “Instead, this legislation continues the reliance on institutionalization and is a barrier to community living.”

Read the full text of Wolf’s veto message:

“All people deserve the opportunity to live among their family and peers in integrated, supportive homes. Quality home and community-based care should be the priority for the individuals we serve.

“Community care results in better outcomes for individuals with disabilities.  Individuals with disabilities should be offered an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities. My goal is to serve more individuals in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care, and improve access to home and community-based services.

“This legislation does not promote this investment and transition to community-based care for individuals with a disability. Instead, this legislation continues the reliance on institutionalization and is a barrier to community living.

“Specifically, this legislation is in response to the recent announcement of the closures of two state-operated centers: Polk State Center and White Haven State Center. These centers are large institutions that are costly to maintain and do not promote community living. As individuals have transitioned to the community, the need for state-operated centers has declined. It should be acknowledged that closures of state centers have always been controversial. The process that the Department of Human Services has followed for state center closure announcements was established to provide for the planful transition of residents and staff and to honor agreements with the employee unions. The department has followed this announcement procedure for the last two decades. The Department fully understands the gravity of the decision to close a center and has extensive procedures in place for such closures.

“As previously announced, my administration will continue to work with residents, their families and the employees of the state centers to provide a smooth and safe transition over the next few years.  No resident will leave these state-operated centers without a destination of the resident’s and the family’s choosing, including the option to remain in a state center setting.  Further, no resident will leave without a fully developed individualized plan for the physical, emotional, developmental, social and mental health needs of the resident.

“The debate around this closure has been polarizing.  I look forward to the parties coming together and shifting our focus to ensuring a thoughtful and successful transition for each resident and each employee.”