Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill that would have prevented Polk center in Venango County from closing.
On Wednesday, Wolf rejected Senate Bill 906, which would have put a moratorium on the closing of any state center. The bill was introduced after the Department of Human Services announced the closing of two of the remaining four state centers — White Haven in Luzerne County and Polk.
The bill would have blocked the closure of any state center for at least five years and put the decision to close any state center in the hands of the task force created by the bill.
“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," Wolf said. "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."
Wolf said his administration will continue to work with residents, their families and the employees of the state centers to provide a smooth and safe transition.
House Health Committee Chairman Kathy Rapp, whose district includes parts of Crawford County, advanced legislation to help keep the centers open in December.
“Every time an established treatment facility such as Polk and White Haven is shut down, it greatly increases the possibility that our most vulnerable citizens with intellectual disabilities will wind up unnecessarily incarcerated, unfairly exploited or otherwise victimized in mainstream society,” Rapp said in December after the House passed the measure 139-55.
In November, the Senate passed the moratorium legislation with a bipartisan vote of 40-9.
“We are profoundly disappointed with Governor Wolf’s decision to veto Senate Bill 906 — 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," according to a statement issued by state Sens. Michele Brooks, John Yudichak, Lisa Baker and Scott Hutchinson. Brooks' district includes all of Crawford County.
"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 August, the state announced that Polk and White Haven would close within three years. Officials said the decision was part of a decades-long process of moving away from providing care for individuals in institutions and moving them into community-based settings like group homes.
The closings were fought by employees and family members of the centers' residents, who also filed a lawsuit in federal court in an effort to block the shutdowns.
Employees and relatives say the state centers have been good for its residents, the services are comprehensive, the staff is professional and better trained and moving could be traumatic for many residents who have severe disabilities.
In community settings, they say, services are delivered by underpaid or poorly trained workers in jobs with high turnover. Medical professionals aren't close by, leaving a 911 call as the only option during a severe behavioral episode, they say.
Wolf's administration, however, had prominent allies, including the Arc of Pennsylvania and Disability Rights Pennsylvania.
Closing the centers could mean more money for 13,000 people on a waiting list for state aid to begin or upgrade the services they receive in community settings, whether in smaller group homes with around-the-clock care or with relatives where they receive in-home visits by care workers.
Currently, the state centers see just a trickle of new residents, normally by court order, administration officials say.
The state's tab for services in community setting will approach $3.5 billion this fiscal year for roughly 56,000 people. White Haven and Polk cost about $130 million for about 300 residents.
Residents at White Haven and Polk, where original buildings date back more than a century, can also move to one of the two other state centers, Selinsgrove and Ebensburg, where about 400 beds are available, Wolf administration officials say.