State, union officials fear economic fallout from closure of centers serving Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities

Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller, foreground, with Gov. Tom Wolf, background. (Courtesy of Wolf administration)

The Wolf administration announced Wednesday it plans to close two state facilities that care for the intellectually disabled, delighting disability activists but leaving local lawmakers and unions frustrated with the process.

The two state centers, White Haven in Luzerne County and Polk in Venango, will be gradually shut down over the next three years, the Department of Human Services said in a press release Wednesday morning.

The 306 individuals still in the two facilities will be transferred into privately run community living arrangements. This could include living with family or in private group homes with 24-hour staffing.

The individuals will still be monitored by the Human Services department and have access to state services. A DHS spokesperson added that “home and community-based services are highly regulated services offering the same types of health and safety protections that are provided in the state centers.”

Citing decades of studies, the department hopes that community living will improve individuals’ quality of life.

Teresa Miller, secretary of the Department of Human Services, said the closure was “an incredible moment in our history in Pennsylvania” and a sign of the changing times for people with disabilities.

“Over the past 120 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities lived some or all their lives in Polk and White Haven state centers,” Miller said in a statement. 

“We recognize their history and commend the work that center staff have done to support these individuals and their families, but we also must commit to a future that truly includes individuals with disabilities and offers them an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities.”

It’s also costly. Running the two facilities costs $128.2 million annually, according to the department. The cost per resident for both White Haven and Polk is more than $400,000 a year.

Fifty years ago, the state cared for 13,000 intellectually or developmentally disabled Pennsylvanians in facilities like White Haven and Polk. 

Now, the four remaining centers care for 720 individuals total. The department closed its Hamburg facility in Berks County last year.

Pointing to the thoughtful and safe transfer of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities from state institutions into local living arrangements over the previous decades, advocacy group Disability Rights Pennsylvania applauded the closures.

Jean Searle, an advocate for Disability Rights Pennsylvania who was formerly institutionalized, was especially hopeful about the change.

“If I stayed in the institution, I would not have the life I have today. I was not allowed to make my own choices or have any freedom in the institution. I was told when to do things and what I had to do,” Searle said in a statement. “Now in the community, I have a choice of who is in my life, where I want to go, and what I want to do. The choices aren’t always easy, but they are mine to make.”

But that optimistic tone has been balanced by dismay from the unions that represent most of the 1,173 employees who work at White Haven and Polk.

At issue: the lack of notice.

“Last minute? It came as a total surprise,” Dave Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 13, told the Capital-Star.

The union, which represents more than 60,000 Pennsylvania public employees, got word of the closures just before a press release was sent out Wednesday by the state.

The facilities combined employ 963 AFSCME-represented workers, including clerical, maintenance, and housekeeping staff, according to Fillman.

His main concern going forward is what the state will do with the employees at the closing facilities. It’s unclear if layoffs will be necessary. But Fillman said that with state centers on the outs, “we’re really restricted when it comes to putting them in new facilities.”

AFSCME isn’t alone. At least two other unions have members at the centers — Service Employees International Union Local 668, with represents state human services workers, and SEIU Healthcare, a union of nursing and other medical care workers.

Local 668 has less than 100 employees in the two facilities, while SEIU Healthcare represents 36 employees.

Public hearings on the closures are planned for September. But to Steve Catanese, president of Local 668, the announcement-hearing order seems backwards. 

“I would tend to think they’d like to hear from constituents prior to implementing such a decision,” Catanese told the Capital-Star.

Both union leaders also expressed concerns about transitioning institution residents into privately run community living situations. Catanese noted that the state just announced a review of best practices and regulations of care facilities.

In a statement, Bill Hill, president of AFSCME’s local in White Haven, questioned if “a lot of the residents would survive the change” to community living.

“If not for [individuals with disabilities] being in the state facility, they wouldn’t have the fulfilling lives that they do,” Hill said. “They are better served living in the facility. And I’m tired of everybody saying put them in the community when we are a part of the community already.”

The average age of a state center resident is 62 years old, while the average stay is 45 years.

Peri Jude Radecic, executive director of Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said in an email that “all individuals can receive the supports they need to live in the community with person-centered planning.”

Lawmakers are also not pleased. Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, released a statement flat-out opposing the closure. 

While the Human Services department cited a high cost-per-resident in both facilities, Mullery countered that “the department has fought tooth and nail against admissions into our State Centers despite tens of thousands on the waiting list for care.”

“To turn around and cite a low census and cost-per-resident figures is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst,” he added.

Mullery called for locals to rally to save the facility, as they had to prevent the closure of local state prisons in 2017.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, questioned the “economic consequences” of shuttering White Haven, saying it “will create great angst and concern for this vulnerable population and those employees who serve them.”

“Local officials, workers, residents and families will need to fully participate in the public hearing and push to ensure that families have choices about where their loved ones are being served, including allowing their loved ones to remain in a state center if they choose,” Baker said in a statement.

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