Senate OKs bill that would stall closure of Polk State Center

AP file

The Polk State Center in Polk, Venango County.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have delayed the closing of two state facilities that care for those with mental disabilities.

In announcing the veto, Wolf reiterated his administration’s position that moving people out of the facilities and into community-based care settings is the best option.

“Community care results in better outcomes for individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities should be offered an everyday life as fully integrated members of our communities,” Wolf said. “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.”

Senate Bill 906 passed both chambers of the General Assembly after the Wolf Administration announced its plans to close Polk Center, in Venango County, and White Haven, in Luzerne County – two of the state’s four facilities for the case of those with mental disabilities. Once those facilities close, the remaining state centers will be Ebensburg Center in Cambria County and Selinsgrove Center in Snyder County.

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.

The Department of Human Services plans to close Polk and White Haven by 2022, Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said when the state’s plan was originally announced.

Senate lawmakers who’d authored the legislation to delay closure said in a joint statement that they were “profoundly disappointed” by the governor’s veto but offered no indication that they plan to over-ride the veto.

The final vote in the Senate on the measure passed by a 28-21 margin, short of the two-thirds majority that would be required to over-ride the veto.

“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,” state Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford County, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, state Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango County, and state Sen. John Yudichak, an independent from Luzerne County, said in the joint statement released by Yudichak’s office.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, said that he’d voted in favor of the legislation halting the state center closings and added that he would support any effort to over-ride Wolf’s veto if lawmakers attempt it.

“While Ebensburg State Center was not on the Wolf administration’s immediate chopping block, two similar facilities were, and I enthusiastically supported this bill,” Burns said. “It’s sad that in an age when people want to see Democrats and Republicans work together for the common good, the governor fails to adhere to the will of the people and a bipartisan coalition in the legislature.”

In the 1960s, the state had 23 state centers that were home to 13,000 people, according to the Department of Human Services. Today, there are only about 700 people in the four centers — and half that number will be moved into the community under the state’s plan to close Polk and White Haven.

About 1,173 state employees who work at the Polk and White Haven State Centers will lose their jobs, according to the Department of Human Services.

Wolf said that his administration recognizes the closing state-run facilities is controversial and that “extensive procedures” in place to ensure that residents are moved into appropriate settings.

“No resident will leave these state-operated centers without a destination of the resident’s and the family’s choosing, including the option to remain in a state center setting,” he said. “Further, no resident will leave without a fully developed individualized plan for the physical, emotional, developmental, social and mental health needs of the resident,” Wolf said.