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Lawmakers mount a challenge as Pennsylvania shuts state-run facilities for intellectually disabled

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on a bill to block a plan to close the state's four remaining state-run institutions for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Family members of White Haven Center residents line Church Road to rally against the closing of the facility, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in White Haven, Pa.
Family members of White Haven Center residents line Church Road to rally against the closing of the facility, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in White Haven, Pa.Read moreAP

For decades, Pennsylvania has been following a national trend by closing its state-run institutions where an ever-smaller number people with intellectual disabilities spend their lives.

But when the Wolf administration in August announced a three-year plan to close two of its four remaining institutions -- Polk, in Venango County, and White Haven, in Luzerne County -- the backlash from families of residents, employees, and politicians was sharp and could thwart the state’s effort.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is expected next week to take up a bill, already passed in the Senate, that would block the closures — until all 13,000 intellectually disabled individuals on the state’s Medicaid waiting list for services receive services that help them live in the community.

The bill would effectively prevent the state from ever closing the remaining four institutions.

“The bill would really tie our hands in terms of our ability to make prudent use of public dollars to serve people in less expensive ways that we know will also provide them with a better quality of life.” Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary for the Office of Developmental Programs, which is part of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, said in a telephone interview.

Opponents of the bill rallied Wednesday in Philadelphia, urging supporters to call representatives and try to convince them to vote against the moratorium and continue with the plan to close the facilities.

“We believe all people have the right to live in the community with the supports they need to live a full, rich life. We live in the communities we choose, have the jobs and activities we want, and have our friends, pets and families – natural or chosen,” said Laura Bale, 45, a Montgomery County resident and president of Self Advocates United as 1.

On the other side, a Senate Human Services Committee hearing in September on the proposed closures of Polk and White Haven drew a strong show of support from families and others who want the centers to say open, according to an email from Tom Kashatus, who is president of White Haven Friends & Families and whose daughter has been a White Haven resident for 40 years.

And at a September community hearing in White Haven, Matt Balas a leader of the union that represents some of the center’s employees, was defiant when a state official said the decision to close the center was final. “Don’t bet your bottom dollar,” said Balas, according to the local newspaper Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.).

The last center to close, last August, was the Hamburg State Center in Schuylkill County. It had 80 residents on its 154-acre campus and employed 353. Eighteen of the 80 chose to move to White Haven or another state center in Selinsgrove, said Kevin Dressler, director of the Bureau of State Operated Facilities.

Polk, which is south of Erie, had 194 residents and employed 750 last month. The amount of funding per resident is $409,794 per year. Particularly disturbing for community-living advocates is the presence of Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, at the Polk Center, which was built in 1897 and sits on 2,000 acres.

“The presence of Legionella is symptomatic for the infrastructure problems that we’re experience with the state centers,” Ahrens said. “Legionella breeds where you have pipes that don’t have water running through them on a regular basis.”

White Haven, which occupies 192 acres not far from the intersection of Interstates 476 and 80, had 112 residents and employed 429 last month. The annual funding there totals $434,821 per resident.

To be sure, if Polk and White Haven facilities are closed as planned, those people will not be forced onto the state’s long waiting list. Instead, they will go directly into community-based settings or, if they and their families prefer, be able to transfer to one of the remaining state centers.

Ahrens estimated that it will cost $180,000 to $270,000 a year to provide community-based services to the Polk and White Haven residents, who have extraordinary needs.

At the state system’s peak in the 1960s, 13,000 people lived in 23 state institutions, including the notorious Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County.

Kashatus said during testimony before the Senate committee that the solution to the state waiting list is to open the doors to the remaining state centers.

But on Wednesday in Philadelphia, Ned Whitehead, of the Pennsylvania Waiting List Campaign, said families prefer to wait rather then put their child in an institution.