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Gov. Wolf vetoes bill postponing White Haven Center closure

Standard-Speaker - 2/13/2020

Feb. 13--Gov. Tom Wolf kept alive his plan to close state centers for people with intellectual disabilities in Polk, Venango County, and White Haven on Wednesday by vetoing a bill that would have postponed closings until after he leaves office.

State lawmakers, including Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-119, Newport Twp., who represents the White Haven Center, hope to override the veto, which hasn't happened in Pennsylvania in a decade.

Wolf said the bill thwarted efforts to help people with disabilities live in the least restrictive settings.

"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," he said in a statement.

The bill postpones any closings for at least five years, whereas the state constitution requires Wolf to leave office in three years after his second term ends.

"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," Wolf said in a statement.

On Wednesday, he repeated a promise made Aug. 14, 2019, when announcing the closings that no one will leave White Haven or Polk without a plan in place that provides a new residence and services. He proposed taking three years to close the centers.

Residents would have choices to move into either of two centers that would stay open in Selinsgrove, Snyder County, or Ebensburg, Cambria County. Alternately, they could enter community residences such as private centers, group homes, nursing homes, private homes with relatives or with foster families.

Mullery said the governor's plan shifts people with disabilities into community settings, where their care costs less. He and others opposed to the closings argue that centers provide better care because a range of professionals are on duty around the clock and caregivers are paid better so they stay on the job longer and develop relationships with residents.

"My mother told me a long time ago, you get what you pay for," Mullery said. "When it comes to caring for those with intellectual and development disabilities, nothing could be truer."

He pointed to a federal report that found instances when Pennsylvanians living in the community went to hospitals, but providers failed to report incidents within 24 hours, as federal law requires. The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services found that 307 of 1,162 emergency room visits in which the diagnoses indicated a high risk of neglect or abuse weren't promptly reported. Nor were 167 of 510 hospitalizations indicative of abuse or neglect.

The report used data from 2015 and 2016, and the state said it has strengthened policies, penalties and tools to promote better reporting that people at risk can be identified and protected.

Sens. John Yudichak, I-14, Swoyersville, who introduced the bill and represents White Haven; Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., and Michele Brooks, R-50, Crawford and Erie counties, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said they were profoundly disappointed by the veto.

Closing White Haven and Polk limits choices on how to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities, they said in a joint statement.

"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," the senators said.

State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp., also expressed her displeasure with Wolf.

"Although not unexpected, I am still greatly disappointed by the governor's veto of Senate Bill 906," Toohil said in a statement. "For those of us who support the centers, our attention will now focus on securing enough votes for an override of the governor's ill-advised veto, so that residents and their families have a choice in where they live and the care they want to receive."

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122, Lower Towamensing Twp., shared similar sentiments.

"I have toured the center, where many residents require around-the-clock care, and have little confidence their needs can be met in a community-type setting," Heffley said in a statement. "I am hopeful to reach a bipartisan solution and a possible veto override in order to give the residents of these two centers and their families a choice in the care they receive."

Susan Jennings, whose 27-year-old son, Joey, lives at White Haven, doubted that the veto will be politically popular.

"We are surprised that Gov. Wolf believes that eliminating needed care for the most severely disabled Pennsylvania citizens and causing anguish and trauma for their desperate families will be a winning election year platform for the Democrats this year," Jennings said.

Her son is among 13 residents who filed a federal lawsuit as a class action on behalf of all center residents. The suit seeks to protect their rights to stay in centers.

The suit argues that closing centers will deprive residents of longstanding relationships that they developed with each other and their caregivers; and, in some instances, put them at risk of harm do to lack of "appropriate treatment, services, supports and care."

Court decisions and laws dating to the 1960s codified a movement to shift people from institutions to community settings, which Pennsylvania has done while closing centers during the past half century.

Fifty years ago, 13,000 people with intellectual disabilities lived in state centers. That census dropped to 3,000 residents 20 years ago. Now, fewer than 720 people live in four remaining state centers.

Closing centers always has been controversial, Wolf said.

The lawsuit challenging the closings, however, says a landmark decision in case of Olmstead vs. Zimring 21 years ago didn't require states to close all their institutions.

"In fact, the Olmstead decision recognized that 'for [some] individuals, no placement outside the institution may ever be appropriate,'" the lawsuit says.

Contact the writer: kjackson@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3587

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