The state Department of Human Services will close two of four remaining state centers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, officials said Wednesday.
The closure of the Polk State Center in Venango County and White Haven State Center in Luzerne County will take about three years.
“The closures reflect the Wolf Administration’s work to serve more people in the community, reduce reliance on institutional care, and improve access to home- and community-based services so every Pennsylvanian can live an everyday life,” Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said in a statement.
The move was praised by disability advocacy groups, but was decried by some family members whose loved ones live in the institutions, as well as local elected officials and union leaders representing center employees, who vowed to fight the closure.
The state has gradually been closing such institutions in favor of smaller care settings, part of a national trend since the 1960s.
Many disability advocates believe community-based settings are far superior in caring for people and integrating them into the community, though the family members of some people who remain in institutions believe that is still the best place for their loved ones. Irene McCabe, president of a group representing the families of center residents, appealed to Gov. Tom Wolf to keep the centers open.
According to data from the state, 50 years ago more than 13,000 people with intellectual disabilities were served in state-operated facilities; today that number is fewer than 720 individuals.
Polk has 194 residents, White Haven has 112.
Both facilities have more than a century of history: Polk opened in 1897, and the White Haven site was at one point a tuberculosis sanatorium.
Institutional settings are far costlier for the state to operate.
State human service officials put the annual average cost of care per resident at Polk and White Haven at $409,794 and $434,821, respectively, though advocates for keeping the centers open point out the centers are not operating at full capacity, which pushes the cost per resident up.
The system of community-based care also has its challenges — in particular, a shortage of qualified workers.
“No resident will leave Polk or White Haven without a destination of their choosing and a fully developed plan that meets their physical, emotional, social and mental health needs,” said Miller in a statement. “We will not rush this process. We are committed to working closely with residents, families, and employees to ensure a smooth, safe transition.”
Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R., Venango), whose district includes Polk, said the center had previously been threatened with closure in the 1990s. He said he would fight the decision.
The center "provides a very high quality and very necessary services to many families," he said.
“This will create great angst and concern for this vulnerable population and those employees who serve them,” said state Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), in a statement. “Due to their location, there will be questions about the economic consequences as well as about the assurances of equivalent care being available within the community, as most residents are classified profoundly disabled and in need of skilled care.
There are 429 employees at White Haven and 744 employees at Polk, state officials said. Five unions have members working at each center: AFSCME, OPEIU, PDA, SEIU and SEIU Healthcare.
Employees “will be supported throughout the closure process to assure they have increased opportunities for future employment. Every effort will be made to place employees who wish to continue with commonwealth employment into existing vacant positions for which they qualify,” DHS officials said in a statement.
“We were all blindsided” by the announcement, said Steve Catanese, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents about 100 social service workers at the centers.
“While we are waiting to learn more details about how exactly this move would affect the employees of Polk and White Haven, we do not agree with this decision and will do everything in our power to fight it and assist the workers in any way possible,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13 Executive Director David Fillman said in a statement.
Disability advocacy groups applauded the planned closures.
“The closure announcement today is the result of decades of movement away from institutional living in Pennsylvania,” said Peri Jude Radecic, CEO of Disability Rights Pennsylvania. “The Americans with Disabilities Act sought to end the isolation and segregation of persons with disabilities. Court decisions have affirmed the right to move and live in the community. For decades, our Commonwealth has demonstrated that state operated institutions can close and individuals can be moved into the community thoughtfully and safely.”
Two public meetings about the closures are planned.